Obituary: Ken Retzer (1934-2020)

RIP to Ken Retzer, a catcher for four seasons in the early 1960s. He died on May 17 at his home in Sun City, Ariz. He was 86 years old. Retzer played for the Washington Senators from 1961-64.

Ken Retzer was born on April 30, 1934, in Wood River, Ill., which is right on the Illinois-Missouri border. He attended high school in Missouri at Wellsville High and was a talented basketball player as well as a baseball player. Retzer also played for the Mexico (Mo.) Ramblers in the Ban Johnson League and was one of the team’s leading hitters.

Retzer graduated from Wellsville in 1954 and immediately headed to play American Legion ball with the Estherville Red Sox of the Iowa State League. In his first five games, he had 10 hits in 20 at-bats, including what proved to be a game-winning 3-run home run over Storm Lake. He then enrolled at Jefferson City Junior College. Again, he excelled in two sports, as a catcher on the Bears baseball team and a forward on the basketball team. In his freshman year, Retzer was fourth on the team in scoring with 184 points.

Ken Retzer is moments away from getting ejected by umpire Cesare Carlucci as manager Jimmie Reese tries to intervene. Source: The Vancouver Sun, June 27, 1961.

Retzer moved from junior college to professional baseball in March of 1964, when he signed a contract with the Cleveland Indians. He received a small bonus for signing and headed to Daytona Beach to work out with his new team. The Indians assigned him to a Class-D team in Tifton, Ga. He got his pro ball career off to a good start there, hitting .307 with 8 homers and throwing out a reported 122 baserunners. (He actually had 122 total assists, but he had a cannon behind the plate regardless of the true number.) He repeated his success with Fargo-Moorhead in 1955 before stumbling a bit in Reading in ’56. He hit just .247 after two seasons of .300 ball. He played winter ball in Colombia before departing baseball to serve in the U.S. Army, per his SABR bio.

Retzer returned to Reading in 1958 and batted .290. The Indians moved him up to the high minors, and he was a productive player for the next three seasons. In 1961, while playing for the San Diego Padres (then of the AAA Pacific Coast League), he slashed .282/.366/.398. He earned a September call-up to the majors for that, but not with the Indians. Cleveland traded him to the expansion Washington Senators for a player to be named later, and Retzer debuted with the team on September 9 against Baltimore. The 27-year-old rookie doubled off Jack Fisher in his first MLB at-bat. On September 16, he hit his first home run to give the Senators the lead in a 3-0 win over the Kansas City Athletics. He then picked up 6 hits in a four-game series against Minnesota to get his batting average near .400. He ended the season with a .340 batting average and .472 slugging percentage over 16 games. He also showed off his throwing arm by nabbing 6 of 13 base-stealers.

That kind of offensive and defensive performance earned Retzer at least a semi-starting role behind the plate in 1962, as the lefty-hitting catcher alternated with the righty Bob Schmidt. Retzer received slightly more playing time and slashed .285/.334/.400 in 109 games. He hit 8 home runs with 37 RBIs. He threw out baserunners at a 40% clip and ended the year with 44 assists, good enough for 4th in the AL. He drove in 4 runs on a home run and two singles on May 30, helping Claude Osteen blank the Twins 8-0. It was the pitcher’s first career shutout. He was also behind the plate for 15 of the 16 innings when Tom Cheney set a major-league record by striking out 21 batters in a 2-1 win over the Orioles, on September 12. Even though Retzer went 0-for-7 before being lifted for a pinch-runner, he handled the knuckleballer for 20 of those strikeouts. Cheney threw 228 pitches in the game, for the record.

Retzer remained the Senators’ primary catcher in 1963, though his hitting cooled off to .242. He struggled defensively, as well. One of his highlights came on the Senators Opening Day, when he caught the ceremonial first pitch delivered by President John F. Kennedy. There was some controversy around it, as the vendors at DC Stadium were on strike, and a special agreement had to be reached to get them to call off picketing for the day. President Kennedy threw a low fastball, which Retzer snagged with a lunging catch. The President signed the ball for Retzer; I’ve not read anything about what became of the baseball, but it must be priceless, considering it was the last Opening Day that President Kennedy ever saw.

Retzer meets President John F. Kennedy after catching the Opening Day pitch in 1963. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 20, 1990.

Retzer participated in another bit of baseball history later that year, when he got behind the plate for Major League Baseball’s 100,000th game. Starting pitcher Benny Daniels threw the first pitch, time was called, and the baseball Retzer caught was taken out of the game and sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame. “I always tell people my fingerprints are on that ball, because that’s the closest I’ll come to getting in the Hall of Fame,” he later said.

Retzer was again the Senators Opening Day catcher in 1964, but he struggled mightily at the plate. He was eventually benched and then, when the roster had to be reduced to 25 players in mid-May, he was sent to the minors. He was hitting .130 at the time of his demotion. He was brought back for a handful of games in September but went hitless, ending his season with an .094 average.

After the season, the Senators traded Retzer to the Minnesota Twins. He would later get traded to the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians organizations, too. He played in the minor leagues through the 1967 season, retiring at the age of 33.

Retzer and his wife, Janet. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 18, 2010.

In 4 seasons in the majors, Retzer played in 237 games and slashed .264/.316/.367. He had 182 hits that included 25 doubles, 2 triples and 14 homers. He had 72 RBIs, and while he wasn’t known for speed, he was a perfect 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts. He threw out 38% of baserunners, which was a little better than league average.

After baseball, Retzer had several jobs and at one time owned a restaurant in San Diego called “Retzer’s Home Plate.” He also was a competitive racquetball player and was an instructor at Alton Nautilus in Illinois. He retired after working as a juvenile transportation driver in Edwardsville, Ill., before he and his wife, Janet, moved to Arizona.

For more information: The Edwardsville Intelligencer

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