Obituary: Claudell Washington (1954-2020)


RIP to former All-Star outfielder Claudell Washington, who died on June 10 at the age of 65. According to his former teammate John D’Acquisto and PastPros, a company that represented him for autographs, Washington died from prostate cancer. He went public with his battle in 2018, when he announced he had discontinued treatment. Washington played for the Oakland Athletics (1974-76), Texas Rangers (1977-78), Chicago White Sox (1978-80), New York Mets (1980), Atlanta Braves (1981-86), New York Yankees (1986-88, 1990) and California Angels (1989-90).

Claudell Washington was born in Los Angeles on August 31, 1954. He played a lot of baseball in his youth, but hardly ever at Berkeley High School, where he graduated in 1972. “As a freshman, the coach had me pitching every game,” Washington told the New York Daily News in 1974 of his aborted high school baseball career. “I won our first five. I was 14. I was hurting my arm, so I quit and stuck with track and basketball.” The paper also noted an alternate story, where his track coach advised him to give up baseball to study more and improve his grades.

Washington worked as a part-time high school janitor after graduation and played sandlot baseball on a Connie Mack team in Berkeley. That same team also featured future big-leaguer Ruppert Jones. He was noticed by a police officer named Jim Guinn, who also scouted for the A’s. Guinn convince Oakland farm director John Claiborne to take a chance on Washington, and he was signed by the Oakland A’s.

Though he may not have had the polish that comes from playing high school or college ball, Washington had to talent to compensate for it. He hit .279 in 33 games with the Coos Bay-North Bend A’s in the low-A Northwest League in 1972. He worked very closely with manager Grover Resinger to hone his skills. When Washington had gone on to stardom in Oakland, Resinger recalled the diamond in the rough that he used to be. Washington didn’t know how to play the outfield or how to utilize his speed.

“He was a super kid. He was different. You could tell he had to have a great mother. He worked awfully hard,” Resinger said. “The most impressive thing about him was his willingness to learn. He’d never ask you why something was done, just how.”

“Grover taught me everything I know,” Washington would later say.

His first full season, 1973 with the Burlington Bees of the Midwest League, was where he demonstrated many of the hallmarks of his major-league seasons to come: good batting average (.322), a little pop (13 homers), great speed (38 stolen bases) and some shaky defense (.914 fielding percentage in the outfield). He was named the Topps player of the month for July.

Washington, still just 19, advanced to AA in 1974 and ever played a single game in AAA before reporting to the big leagues. In a half-season in Birmingham, he hit .361 with 11 home runs, 55 RBIs and 33 stolen bases. He was leading the Southern League in most offensive categories when he was called to the major leagues.

“We had some injuries, and Mr. [Charlie] Finley decided we’d bring him up for 10 days or so,” Claiborne said. Washington spent the next 17 years in the major leagues.

In his second big-league game — July 8, 1974 — he hit a 2-out walk-off single off Cleveland’s Gaylord Perry in the bottom of the 10th inning, ending Perry’s 15-game winning streak. He earned a $500 bonus from Finley for the heroics. At the end of his supposed 10-game stay, Washington stuck in the starting lineup… somewhere. The A’s had an exceptional outfield with Joe Rudi, Bill North and Reggie Jackson, plus Jesus Alou at DH. But manager Al Dark, most likely at the direction of Finley, kept finding ways to keep Washington in the mix. In 73 games, he batted .285 and had an OPS+ of 108. He failed to hit a home run, and he sole just 6 bases in 14 attempts, but the talent was so obvious that everyone could see it. White Sox manager Chuck Tanner said he could be a Dick Allen by the time he was 25. Rudi said he’d be a better ballplayer than Reggie Jackson within a couple of years.

Washington, for his part, maintained a quiet confidence. He said that the team’s other outfielders were tutoring him on his fielding. “I don’t listen to anybody about my hitting,” he added. He was moved in and out of the postseason lineups, as the A’s beat Baltimore in the ALCS in four games and then beat the Dodgers in five games to win the World Series. Washington hit .273 in 11 at-bats in the ALCS, as Jackson moved to the DH, and had 4 hits in only 7 at-bats in the World Series. He went to the bench so Jackson could return to right field. “But next year I expect to have a starting job somewhere,” he added.

He did get a starting job, and his first All-Star appearance, too. On the season, he slashed .308/.345/.424. He found his power stroke and belted 10 homers, and he also stole 40 bases. He finished 5th in the AL in batting and 2nd in stolen bases. His 182 hits and 141 singles were Oakland records. He also played in his first of two All-Star Games, though it was not without some controversy. He entered the game in the 5th inning as a pinch runner for Thurman Munson and immediately stole second off Don Sutton. He then remained in the game, first as a center fielder and then as a left fielder. He singled off Jon Matlack and was caught stealing in his only at-bat. In the ninth inning, he misjudged fly balls from Reggie Smith and Al Oliver as the AL scored 3 runs to pick up a 6-3 win. The rumor was that Al manager Dark was instructed to keep Washington in the game by orders of Finley.

Finley loved the young outfielder and rewarded him with a good salary and bonuses, but Washington’s emergence may have created some problems in the locker room. In order for him to play left field, Rudi had to move to first base, Gene Tenace had to move to catcher, and Ray Fosse had to move to the bench. There were whispers that Washington didn’t work hard. If anything, he felt that the spring training was too easy, at least compared to the rookie camp. “Some people think that I’m too relaxed, that I don’t care, but that’s not true. I just don’t show it like some of the others,” he explained.

Washington tailed off to .257 in 1976. He was bothered by arm problems in spring training — the result of trying to learn a new throwing motion by coach Bobby Winkles — and spent the first half of the season in a deep slump. On March 26, 1977, the A’s traded him to the Rangers for pitcher Jim Umbarger, shortstop Rodney Scott and “a considerable amount of cash.” In his one full seasons in Texas, Washington returned to form, with a .284 average, 12 homers and 21 stolen bases. However, he injured his ankle playing basketball in the offseason, got off to a slow start in 1978 and was traded to the White Sox in May for Bobby Bonds — a move that neither outfielder liked. Washington took a while to report to the Sox, and it was rumored that the team would try to have the trade negated because of his ankle problems. Despite the rocky start, Washington hit .275 for the White Sox for parts of three seasons. He was dealt to the Mets in June of 1980. In 79 games with the Mets, he hit 10 home runs and hit .275 with 42 RBIs. He became a free agent at the end of the season.

Washington had been told on multiple occasions that he was a team’s building block, only to be traded away. His trade from the A’s to the Rangers came a day after signing his contract with Finley, for instance. He’d been hurt by the trades, and as a quiet person, his reaction was to withdraw from his new Sox teammates. It took him until 1979 to really open up and play the game with joy again. But it comes as little surprise that he was after a contract as a free agent that would give him some long-term stability.

Washington signed a five-year deal with the Atlanta Braves on November 15, after the convoluted free-agency re-entry draft that baseball used to have. The deal was worth $3.5 million and contained a no-trade provision. “Our primary reason for getting into the free-agent draft was to get Claudell with a viable contender, and the Braves are certainly that,” said his agent, Todd Baenziger. “They were one player away from winning the pennant last season, and now they’ve got that one player — Claudell.”

The signing infuriated some owners, who felt that the contract was too much for a platoon player. Allegedly, it was the straw that broke Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter’s back and led him to selling the 1980 World Champ Phillies. Sadly, the Braves didn’t get remotely close to the pennant during his tenure, but the Braves did give Washington the most stability that he had ever had in his career. He stayed with the team for five-and-a-half seasons, and he was very productive and pretty underrated during his time there. He never hit bombs with regularity, and he wasn’t a Gold Glove outfielder, and it seems like he could never shake off the early accolades that had him turning into the next Reggie. But even an average Claudell Washington season was one that most teams would be happy to have in their lineup.

Washington celebrates with Lou Piniella after hitting a home run. Source: Daily News, June 8, 1987.

Leaving aside the strike-shortened 1981 season, a typical Claudell Washington season with the Braves involved a .276/.341/.435 slash line in 132 games. He averaged 14 home runs and 25 stolen bases during that time. He also was selected to his second All-Star Team in 1984, when he hit a career-high 17 home runs and drive in 61 runs, while batting .286.

The Braves did make the post-season once, losing in three games to the Cardinals in the 1982 NLCS. Washington hit .333 in that series, after driving in a career-best 80 runs in the regular season and stealing 33 bases. Although his goal of winning the pennant fell short, Washington did say that his time with the Braves was the happiest he’d been in baseball to that point.

The one ugly thing that marred it was a 1985 arrest for possession of 1/4 of a gram of cocaine and 5 grams of marijuana. In 1983, Washington had undergone a drug counseling program to beat a cocaine dependency. He avoided prison time in the 1985 arrest by agreeing to a drug diversion program. He was later one of several MLB players who were suspended for 60 days by then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, though he was able to avoid the suspension by donating 5% of his salary to a drug rehab center, spent 50 hours doing community service and submit to drug testing for the rest of his career.

Washington spent part of 1986 on the disabled list and was then traded to the New York Yankees, along with Paul Zuvella, for Ken Griffey Sr. At the time of the deal, Washington had been hitting .270 with 5 homers and 14 RBIs. He struggled with the Yankees for the rest of the season, with a neck injury and a lack of production, but he picked up the pace for the team in 1987 and ’88. Though injuries and more platooning cut into his playing time, he slashed .308/.342/.442 for the Yanks in 1988. One of his 11 home runs came in the 18th inning of a game against the Tigers, turning a 4-3 deficit into a 5-4 win. Though he wasn’t stealing as many bases at this point in his career, he stole home against the Red Sox and pitcher Roger Clemens to help secure another Yankees win.

Washington became a free agent once again and signed a 3-year, $2.625 million deal with the California Angels. He had one final good season in 1989, when he hit .273 in 110 games with 13 homers and 42 RBIs. He split 1990 between the Angels and the Yankees, and he failed to break the Mendoza Line with either team. He was released by the Yankees as the end of the season, ending his baseball career.

Over the course of 17 seasons, Washington had a slash line of .278/.325/.420. He had 1,884 hits, including 334 doubles, 69 triples and 164 home runs. He also had 312 stolen bases and drove in 824 runs in a little over 1,900 games. He had a lifetime OPS+ of 106 and was worth 19.6 Wins Above Replacement over his career, per Baseball Reference. His defense did detract from his final numbers, as his offensive WAR is 26.5.

A career of Washington’s length comes with some milestones. He hit the 10,000th home run in Yankees history, off Minnesota’s Jeff Reardon on April 20, 1988. He also hit 3 home runs in a game twice, on July 4, 1979 as a member of the White Sox and June 22, 1980 as a member of the Mets. He was, at the time, only the third player to hit 3 homers in a game in each league, after Babe Ruth and Johnny Mize. (Thanks to historian Christopher Kamka for that nugget of baseball knowledge.) He also struck out against Nolan Ryan 36 times, the most of any hitter.

“It’s not something I’m ashamed about,” Washington said. “I’m one of a long, long list. I’m in good company on both ends of the spectrum.”

For more information: ESPN
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