RIP to John Matias, who had one season in the major leagues and later became a long-time high school baseball coach in his home state of Hawaii. He died on April 7 after a lengthy illness, at the age of 76. Matias was an outfielder and first baseman for the 1970 Chicago White Sox. His nephew, Joe DeSa, also played with the Sox before his untimely death.
John Matias was born in Honolulu on August 15, 1944. He came from an athletic family. John Matias Sr. was a pitcher for the Puerto Ricans team of the Hawaii League, and he also managed five championship teams in his native Puerto Rico. John Jr. also had a younger brother, Bob, who spent a couple of seasons in the minor leagues. John Matias was a standout athlete at Farrington High School, playing baseball, basketball and football. He made his biggest mark in baseball, though. As early as 1960, the 15-year-old Matias was playing for Team Hawaii in a Puerto Rican team. One of his teammates was pitcher Richard DeSa an uncle of Joe DeSa on his father’s side. Matias’ biggest game in his high school career became the stuff of legend in Hawaii.
On May 18, 1962, Matias hit four home runs in the semifinals of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association baseball tournament at Honolulu Stadium. They were two solo blasts, a 3-run shot and a grand slam, accounting for 9 runs in a 13-1 win over Waimea of Kauai. Matias, a first baseman and pitcher, also took the mound as a reliever and got the team out of a jam. He’d only hit 3 homers the entire season prior to that game, but the dimensions of the park were extremely friendly to the left-handed hitter. Plenty of lefties went to bat in the 40-year history of the stadium, but no one ever matched that feat.
The Baltimore Orioles beat out several other teams (in the U.S. and Japan) and signed Matias to a contract on June 13, 1963. It was a package deal, as they signed Bob Matias as well. The brothers started their professional careers with the Bluefield Orioles, a Rookie-class team in the Appalachian League. Bob hit a respectable .278 but would exit the Orioles’ system after 1964. John Matias, though, hit a ridiculous .433 in 48 games, was named to the Appy League’s All-Star team and won a Louisville Slugger award for leading the league in hitting in the first half with a .475 mark.
Matias didn’t advance past AA with the Orioles, but he hit everywhere he was sent. He even showed off some power in 1964 and ’65, hitting 13 and 14 home runs respectively for Fox Cities and Stockton. He had a brief 10-game stay at AA Elmira in 1966 and then spent the entire season with the team in 1967. He batted .279 with 30 RBIs, but he hit just 1 home run — it was a walk-off 3-run homer, though. At one point, he went on an 11-for-13 hitting spree that raised his batting average by almost 100 points.
Matias’ career got a boost when he was traded from Baltimore to the Chicago White Sox in November of 1967. He, Luis Aparicio and Russ Snyder were sent to the Sox for Roger Nelson, Bruce Howard and Don Buford. Matias was overjoyed at the news, since the White Sox AAA affiliate team was the Hawaii Islanders, but he was sent back to the lower minors, splitting the 1968 season with AA Evansville and A-Ball Lynchburg.
“I can make it in Triple-A baseball,” he said after the trade. “In fact, I think that after a year in the Pacific Coast League I’ll be ready for the Majors.”
Matias got his first taste of AAA ball in 1969, but by then, the White Sox had changed affiliates to the Tuscon Toros. He batted .314 with 26 doubles, 15 homers and 86 RBIs to prove that, yes, he could make it in AAA. At the end of the year, he was part of a group of prospects added to the big-league roster.
The 1970 White Sox were a young team. The Opening Day lineup had first baseman Matias and second baseman Syd O’Brien making their major league debuts; Bill Melton, Ed Herrmann and Carlos May were all in their early 20s as well. The Sox went through three managers while losing 106 games, so the roster and starting lineups saw high turnover.
Matias went 0-for-3 in his debut but picked up a hit in his second game. His first home run came on April 15 against Chuck Dobson of the Oakland A’s, but his time in the starting lineup was relatively brief. After spending most of April at first base, Matias failed to break .200 and was benched. Used as a pinch-hitter and a fourth outfielder, Matias put together a nice streak in May. He had 9 hits in 16 at-bats from May 18 through May 23, including a solo homer off A’s ace Catfish Hunter. He was sent back to AAA at the end of June, with his average still hovering around .200. He was brought back in September for what would be the final appearances of his major-league career.
Matias appeared in 58 games and had a slash line of .188/.215/.256. He had 2 doubles and 2 home runs among his 22 hits, and he drove in 6 runs. After the season had concluded, he was traded to the Kansas City Royals with Gail Hopkins for Don O’Riley and Pat Kelly. Matias spent a productive season in AA Omaha in 1971, and then his wish finally came true; he was acquired by the San Diego Padres in the offseason and assigned to the AAA team in Honolulu.
“This is something I always wanted to do — play for the Islanders,” he said upon receiving the news. “It really couldn’t work out much better. We’re just settling down in our new home at Pearl Ridge and my young son is about to start school. Now we don’t have to think about moving and finding a new school for John. But, best of all, it will be great to play for my home town.”
The Islanders played in Honolulu Stadium, which Matias had previously conquered with that four-homer game in high school. Unsurprisingly, he hit a career-high 20 long balls in 1972. As proof that he could do more than slug homers, Matias also beat the Portland Beavers 3-2 with a perfect bunt with two outs and a runner on third base in the bottom of the 9th inning.
Matias played with the Islanders for half of 1973 before being released. He had hoped to play a few years in Japan, but he instead finished the season with a few games with the Tacoma Twins before spending the next six seasons playing in Mexico. Not only did he hit well in Mexico, but he also started pitching regularly for the first time since his high school days. He returned to the Islanders for 12 final games in 1980 before retiring from the game. In 12 seasons in the minor leagues (his statistics from the Mexican League are incomplete on Baseball Reference), Matias hit 105 home runs and hit .288.
After his playing days, Matias became a baseball coach at Pearl City High School and Damien Memorial High School. His son, John Jr., was a star baseball player at the University of Hawaii before becoming a successful businessman. His grandson, Justin, continued the family tradition of athletic excellence, but he did most of his damage on the football field instead of the baseball diamond. John Sr., who had some difficulties getting around in his later years because of diabetes, tried to make it to as many games as he could.
“He’s pretty fast,” he said of his grandson. “But I tell him I’ll still race him.”
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