Obituary: Rich Hacker (1947-2020)

RIP to Rich Hacker, who played one season in the major leagues before embarking on a substantial career as a minor-league manager and major-league coach. He died on April 22 at the age of 72. He had been diagnosed with leukemia 15 months ago and died in Fairview Heights, Ill. Hacker played for the 1971 Montreal Expos and was a coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays from 1986-93.

Baseball Reference does not give any guidance as to the pronunciation of Rich Hacker’s last name, but multiple newspapers stated that it was pronounced HOCK-er and not HACK-er. New Athens, the small Illinois town where the family lived, is a German community.

Rich Hacker was born on October 6, 1947 in Belleville, Ill. His uncle, Warren Hacker, was a big-league pitcher in the 1940s and ’50s. Rich was the guard on the New Athens High School basketball team that went 26-2 in 1965 to win the Cahokia Conference title. He averaged 14 points a game. Hacker occasionally pitched for the baseball team, but he was considered a top prospect at shortstop. He was drafted in the 39th Round by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1965 June Amateur Draft, but decided to attend Southern Illinois University instead.

Hacker as manager of the Johnson City Cardinals. Source: Johnson City Press Chronicle, July 29, 1983.

Hacker lead the Salukis with 35 hits as a sophomore in 1967. He had improved his standing to the extent that the New York Mets drafted him in the 8th Round of the 1967 Amateur Draft. This time, Hacker signed with the team and reported to the Mankato, Minn., rookie team.

Throughout his four years in the Mets organization, Hacker never topped 100 games in a season, thanks to a variety of minor injuries and military service that cost him playing time. He batted .221 in 49 games with Mankato in 1967 and .224 in 76 games with the Visalia Mets of the California League. He hit his first professional home run there, which was a grand slam that paced an 11-8 win over Modesto.

Hacker got a brief taste of AA in 1969, playing about a month with the Memphis Blues after starting the season in Vidalia. He hit a combined .216 for those two teams and departed baseball in early July to report to Fort Ord, Calif., for National Guard basic training. He returned to baseball in 1970, but injuries limited him to 13 games for Memphis. They were 13 really good games, though, as he hit .326 with 8 runs scored. He was sent home in late July due to a knee injury.

Hacker arrived to the Mets’ spring training camp in 1971 with hopes of advancing to AAA. “I don’t know that I’m ready for Triple A ball yet or not but I feel I’ve got a good chance or making it at Tidewater,” he said. He did make it to AAA, but it was with a different team. Near the end of spring training, Hacker and outfielder Ron Swoboda were traded to the Montreal Expos for outfielder Don Hahn.

The Expos sent Hacker to the AAA Winnipeg Whips until they ran into a particularly ugly part of the schedule in early July. Shortstop Bobby Wine was on the DL after punching a water cooler and breaking a bone in his wrist, and the Expos were facing two doubleheaders in the first week of the month. Hacker was brought to the majors to shore up shortstop, and he started six games between July 2 and July 5. His first major-league hit was an RBI double off the Phillies’ Woodie Fryman on July 2. That would be the only extra-base hit of his big-league career.

The Expos sent Hacker down on July 6 and activated Wine. He’d had 2 hits in 19 at-bats in that stay. He returned to the Expos in September and got a couple starts, along with some late-inning defensive work. He appeared in a total of 16 games in 1971 and had 4 hits in 33 at-bats for a .121 batting average. He drove in 2 runs and walked 3 times. He was quite good defensively, with only 1 error in 62 chances for a .984 fielding percentage.

Hacker later admitted that he was surprised to get the call to the majors and said he wanted to enjoy it while it lasted. “I feel very fortunate because I am one of the few to realize what it’s like to play in the majors. It made me feel that everything I had put in since I was five was somehow worth it.”

Hacker jumps over a sliding Larry Bowa to complete a double play. Source: The Daily Journal (Vineland, N.J.)< September 23, 1971.

Hacker’s 1972 season almost ended before it started when he was involved in a car accident in spring training. He was driving to camp on February 29, 1972 when he stopped for a school bus ahead of him. A greyhound bus, driving too close behind him, slammed into the back of his car. He walked away with no major injuries, but it was one more injury that showed him down.

Hacker spent the next two seasons in AAA for the Expos. He converted to a switch-hitter in an effort to make himself more valuable. He played all over the infield and even caught a few games, too. The offense never really materialized, though, with batting averages in the low .220s. With the Expos looking to demote him, Hacker moved out of professional baseball for a short time.

Hacker spent 1975 coaching an American Legion team in Carbondale and became the head baseball coach at Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg, Ill., in 1976. He also was an assistant basketball coach and the director of the school’s Early School Leavers program, which gave second opportunities to high school and college dropouts. He also spent a summer coaching in the Alaskan Summer Baseball League. Southeastern won the Illinois State Junior College Tournament in 1977. Hacker had a 92-20 record over two seasons before resigning in 1978 to serve as a scout for the San Diego Padres.

Hacker found himself back in the minor leagues, as an infielder, in 1979. The transition from ballplayer to junior college coach to scout to coach to player probably has never occurred before or since. What happened was this: Hacker started 1979 as the Padres’ Midwest scouting supervisor. Glenn Ezell, manager of the AAA Amarillo Gold Sox, had heart surgery, and first base coach Rusty Gerhardt filled in as interim manager. Hacker, then 31, agreed to coach at first base. When Padres prospect Tim Flannery hurt his back, Hacker was activated as a player for the first time in six years.

“This is not the kind of summer I’d envisioned,” he said. “I’m down here staying at a Quality Inn with no transportation. I’ve got a boy 21 months old and a wife and I won’t be home until September.”

Hacker had 2 hits in 14 at-bats, officially ending his minor-league career with a .227 batting average over parts of 8 seasons.

Hacker spent 1980 as a scout for the Blue Jays and got back into uniform again in 1981, this time as the manager of the Jays’ Gulf Coast Rookie League team. He then spent 4 years managing in the Cardinals’ organization, including three years with the Johnson City Cardinals, another Rookie League team, and one with the Erie Cardinals, a low-A team. He was hired by the Cardinals’ general manager Whitey Herzog, who was born in New Athens and knew the Hacker family. Herzog, who was 16 years older than Rich Hacker, played catch with him when Herzog was home.

Among the players that Hacker managed as they were just getting started in their professional careers were Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton, Stan Javier, Lance Johnson and Joe Magrane.

Herzog, who by then was manager for the Cardinals, chose Hacker to be a part of his coaching staff in 1986, replacing Hal Lanier after Lanier departed to manage the Houston Astros. Hacker was first base coach for three seasons and then spent 1989 and ’90 as the Cardinals’ third base coach. In Hacker’s obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Herzog explained that he gave Hacker the chance to move up to the majors from rookie ball because of his reputation.

“At Johnson City, everybody had raved about how many hours he worked,” Herzog said.

A bio for Hacker from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 3, 1988.

Herzog denied at the time that their hometown connection had anything to do with the hire. “I’ll tell you one thing, I wouldn’t have made a guy coach just because he comes from New Athens. Otherwise, I’d have brought the bartender in here. He was better to me than anyone else.

“Rich Hacker has a hell of a future in baseball. He was a smart player, a smart minor-league manager and a smart scout. Since I’ve had him in here, the players like him and respect him, and he’s worked hard,” the manager said.

Herzog resigned midway through 1989, and new manager Joe Torre only retained a a couple of the coaches for the 1990 season. Hacker landed on his feet by becoming the third base coach of the Toronto Blue Jays.

“The Toronto job was something I really wanted. I like coaching third base,” Hacker said. “I’m very happy and excited about the prospect of being on a team as good as Toronto’s. I’m happy to have a job.”

Hacker was a part of the Blue Jays’ World Champions seasons of 1992 and 1993, though he missed the second half of the 1993 season after a near-fatal car accident. During the All-Star Break, he flew home to Illinois. He was driving on the Martin Luther King Bridge on July 11 when the borrowed van he was driving was involved in a head-on collision by a car that had been drag racing. He was briefly in a coma, but recovered enough by October to throw out the first pitch at Game 3 of the AL Championship Series.

“I saw the car a couple of weeks ago,” Hacker said in October of 1993. “I don’t know how anybody walked away. The funny thing is, I don’t remember a darn thing. I guess that’s the body’s way of protecting us.”

Hacker’s right ankle was badly dislocated, and he suffered a head injury that affected his short-term memory. He spent 1994 as a special assignment scout whose job was to chart pitches on a laptop in the press box. He was let go after the season when it was determined that the team didn’t need an eye in the sky. Hacker spent several more seasons as a scout for the Twins and Padres. He also participated in baseball camps in Illinois.

Hacker was diagnosed with leukemia 15 months ago, and the cancer spread to his brain. According to his family, he lived out his live with the same optimism and determination he always showed.

“Life is something you have to go on with no matter what the obstacles are,” he said shortly after his 1993 car accident. “No matter how unfair it is, you can’t be bitter. You just have to go on.”

For more information: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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