Obituary: Ron Fairly (1938-2019)

RIP to Ron Fairly, who over the course of a nearly 50-year baseball career was an All-Star, a World Series champ, an announcer and an author. He died in Indian Wells, Calif., on October 30 at the age of 81. His death, from pancreatic cancer, was announced by the Seattle Mariners, for whom Fairly had worked as an announcer for 14 years. Fairly played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1958-69), Montreal Expos (1969-74), St. Louis Cardinals (1975-76), Oakland Athletics (1976), Toronto Blue Jays (1977) and California Angels (1978).

Ron Fairly was born in Macon, Ga., on July 12, 1938. His father, Carl Fairly, was an infielder who spent 11 seasons in the minor leagues. When Ron was born, Carl was in the middle of a tour of duty with the Macon Peaches of the South Atlantic League. Ron started getting his own recognition as a baseball player on the other side of the country, at Jordan High School in Long Beach, Calif. He was an All-City baseball player, equally talented in the outfield or on the pitcher’s mound. He was also an All-City basketball player who helped lead the Jordan High Panthers to the first ever Paramount Invitational Tournament championship, held in December 1955. Fairly scored 6 points over the final 27 seconds of the championship game. Baseball, though, was his dream.

Fairly would play first base and the outfield in roughly equal amounts in the majors, but in his high school and college career, he was a center fielder. At 5’10”, he wasn’t thought to be tall enough to play first base, though that was his desire. “Why, I even bought a $30 glove once, but I’ve never really got to use it,” he said in 1957.

At the time, he was playing center field for the Edmonton Eskimos of the amateur Western Canada League. Though still a high school student, he was among the league’s batting leaders and was already being considered for a spot in the major leagues. First, he spent a year at the University of Southern California, under legendary coach Rod Dedeaux.

Fairly went pro in June of 1958, signing a $75,000 deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He played a total of 69 games in the minor leagues for the St. Paul Saints and Des Moines Bruins, hitting .297 with 14 home runs. He was brought to the major leagues that September, just a couple months after his 20th birthday. The only other minor-league service he would log was in 1960, when he spent most of the season in Spokane.

The Dodgers were in a transition phase, as the stars from their dominant early ’50s teams were retiring or nearing the ends of their careers (Pee Wee Reese retired after the season). The team’s new batch of stars, including Fairly, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, were just starting to establish themselves. In a 15-game audition in September, Fairly hit .283, homered twice and drove in 8 runs. He also showed excellent patience for a rookie, walking 6 times. His defense impressed his manager, Walt Alston, too. Though the Dodgers had many good outfielders — Furillo, Duke Snider and Wally Moon, to name a few — Fairly looked like a good bet to crack the starting lineup in 1959 and was favored to win the Rookie of the Year award.

Ron Fairly (#6) leaps onto a pile of teammates after they win the 1963 World Series. Source: Sioux City Journal, October 7, 1963.

Fairly’s emergence into an everyday player took a few years, though. He struggled through 1959 and hit .238, with just 4 home runs. The Dodgers won the World Series that year, but Fairly got a total of 3 at-bats against the White Sox. As noted above, he spent most of 1960 in the minor leagues and looked overmatched when he finally made a brief appearance with Los Angeles at the end of the season. At one point, he was almost traded to the Washington Senators for Roy Sievers.

Then 1961 happened. Fairly started off as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement, not getting a start until May 9. He hit a solo home run in that game against the Phillies’ Art Mahaffey. The next day, he started again and hit a 3-run blast off Frank Sullivan. After that, Fairly started playing regularly and kept his batting average around .300 for most of the season. A 16-game hitting streak in September helped boost his slash line to .322/.434/.522, with 10 home runs and 48 RBIs. He would never top any of those numbers, but he played well enough for the rest of his Dodgers tenure that he was usually in the starting lineup. He might be in right field, left field or first base, but he would be in there somewhere.

Columnist Jim Murray called him an Old Pro — nondescript, professional, dependable. “He’s the guy whose hit beats you. Managers take him for granted. The public asks for his autograph after everyone else has left.”

Fairly certainly wasn’t unnoticed or unappreciated by his teammates. Murray asked Norm Larker, the All-Star Dodgers first baseman who lost his spot to Fairly, if the redheaded youngster could play the position. “Can Fairly play first base? Buddy, Fairly can do ANYTHING,” Larker responded. “He could pitch if they wanted him to. Or tune the piano. He’s the most natural ballplayer I’ve ever seen. He never does anything wrong.”

Fairly ended 1962 mired in a deep slump, and he barely played in a 3-game playoff series against the Giants to determine the NL pennant. He did drive in the winning run in Game Two with a 9th inning sacrifice fly, but the Dodgers lost the other two games in the series to finish in second place.

Fairly picked up a second World Series championship with the Dodgers in 1963, after batting .271 with 12 homers and a career-high 77 RBIs. However, his contributions in the World Series sweep of the Yankees were limited to 4 plate appearances, playing mostly as a late-inning replacement for right fielder Frank Howard. Fairly went 0-for-1 with 3 walks. His best postseason came in 1965, when the Dodgers beat the Twins in seven games. He hit .379, with 3 doubles and 2 home runs, driving in 6. Fairly was far and away the Dodgers’ biggest offensive weapon in the series, and if Sandy Koufax hadn’t gone 2-1 with a microscopic 0.38 ERA, he would have been named the World Series MVP.

From 1961 through 1966, Fairly hit at a .278 clip, averaging a dozen homers a year. He struggled in the ’66 World Series as the Orioles topped the Dodgers, and his struggles carried over to the 1967 season. He batted .220 in ’67 and .234 in ’68. When he got off to another slow start in 1969, he was traded to the Montreal Expos, along with Paul Popovich for Maury Wills and Manny Mota.

Fairly was fine with leaving the Dodgers. He was stuck on the bench, and while he hadn’t asked for a trade, he seemed to be ready for a change of scenery. “I know I had a couple of bad years, but everybody had a bad year last year,” he said, shortly before the trade. “I know this: In my mind, I can still hit as well as anybody on this ball club, and drive in as many runs — if I play.”

Source: Pensacola News Journal, June 20, 1971.

The 30-year-old still had plenty left in the tank, and he reverted to his old form with his new team. Fairly hit .289 for the Expos for the rest of the season, with 12 home runs in 70 games. He belted 17 home runs in 1973 and matched that total the following season. He was particularly good at homering off his old Dodger mates, with 9 long balls against them in his first three seasons as an Expo. Fairly hit .298 for the Expos in 1973 and was named to the All-Star team for the first time in his career, at the age of 34. He recorded four putouts at first base in the game, but he never batted.

After a 1974 season that saw his productivity slip, Fairly was dealt to St. Louis in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers, neither of whom ever reached the big leagues. The Cardinals used him as a pinch hitter frequently, but he did share time at first base with All-Star Reggie Smith and newcomer Keith Hernandez. He hit .301 in 107 games in 1975 and then .264 in 1976, before the A’s acquired him for the September pennant chase. Fairly didn’t do much for his new team as Oakland fell short of the playoffs, and he was traded to the expansion Toronto Blue Jays in the offseason.

Fairly rotated between designated hitter, first base and the outfield in 1977 and played in 132 games, which was more than he had done since his All-Star season of 1973. He hit a career best 19 home runs, drove in 64 runs and slashed .279/.362/.465. He did all this while being older than the team’s general manager, Peter Bavasi. He was named to the All-Star Team in ’77 as well, giving him the distinction of being the only player who represented both Canadian teams in an All-Star Game. He did get to bat in the 1977 contest, striking out against Tom Seaver.

Fairly was traded one last time in December 1977 to the California Angels. He finished his career after one season with them, falling a couple seasons short of playing in four different decades.

Fairly played for 21 seasons with six teams, accumulating a slash line of .266/.360/.408. He hit 215 home runs, but he never hit 20 in any single season. He also had 307 doubles and 33 triples in his 1,913 hits. He knocked in 1,044 runs and scored 931 times. Ron Fairly was, as Jim Murray noted all those years ago, that guy. The guy that just plays and plays and plays, putting together a string of pretty good seasons in the most under-the-radar way possible. Then you look at his statistics when he retires and wonder how you missed the fact that he picked up almost 2,000 hits. Nick Markakis would be a pretty good modern-day equivalent to Ron Fairly.

Almost immediately after announcing his retirement, Fairly jumped into the broadcast booth. He joined the Angels broadcasting team in 1979, moved to the Giants in 1987 and joined the Mariners in 1993. He stayed with Seattle until retiring in 2006. He came back periodically through 2012 to call the occasional game.

In 2018, Fairly and journalist Steve Springer teamed to write his autobiography, called Fairly at Bat: My 50 years in baseball, from the batter’s box to the broadcast booth. “My worst day in a baseball uniform was better than the best day I could have had in any other career,” he wrote.

There’s also this quote, taken from a Calgary Herald profile in 1977. At the time, Fairly was 39 and facing constant questions about his age. “What people don’t understand is that baseball is the one thing I’ve wanted to do my entire life,” he said. “How many people out there can say that, that they’re doing exactly what they want to be doing with their lives?”

For further information: https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2019-10-30/ron-fairly-usc-dodgers-world-series-angels-cancer-dead

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