Obituary: Denis Menke (1940-2020)

RIP to two-time All-Star infielder and in-demand hitting coach Denis Menke. His family announced that he died in Tarpon Springs, Fla., on December 1. He was 80 years old. Menke played for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (1962-67), Houston Astros (1968-71, 1974) and Cincinnati Reds (1972-73).

Denis John Menke was born in Bancroft, Iowa, on July 21, 1940, and grew up on his family’s 480-acre farm. As a high school student at St. John’s in Bancroft, Menke was frequently the high scorer on the basketball team and was named the starting forward on the North Central Iowa Catholic Basketball team for 1955-56. He also proved to be a very talented baseball player, both as a shortstop and a pitcher, and it was no surprise why. His father, Walt Menke, was a hard-hitting outfielder for the minor-league Des Moines Demons and Springfield Browns in the 1930s. The Menke family was pretty well-known in Iowa for their baseball skills, and Denis’ brother Alan also played in the minors.

Menke was a high school senior in 1958, and pro scouts were lining up outside the family’s house to talk with him and his parents. Menke was thought of as the best prospect to come out of the Iowa cornfields since Bob Feller. Fourteen of the sixteen teams sent scouts to look Menke over, and the final contenders were the Braves, Orioles and White Sox. Milwaukee made the winning bid, estimated to be somewhere between $60,000 and $130,000. Eddie Dancisak was the area scout who brought him into the Braves organization.

Menke spent a couple of weeks with the Class-B Cedar Rapids Braves and hit .267, including his first professional home run. After a couple of weeks, the 17-year-old was sent to the Midland (Texas) Braves, a Class-D team in the Sophomore League. He batted .285 and cracked 3 home runs in a game against Plainview. He attended the Florida Instructional League but was hampered by finger and shoulder injuries most of the time. Injuries limited his playing time and effectiveness in 1959 as well, but he regained prized prospect status in 1960 with a monster season for the Yakima Braves of the Northwest League.

Menke finished second in the league with 28 home runs, fifth with 103 RBIs and sixth in hitting at .336. He also drew 88 walks, showing an impressive batting eye. The Braves moved him all the way to AAA Vancouver in 1961, and he hit .291 with 15 home runs. He also took a big step forward in his fielding at shortstop, even as he spent the winter months in the instructional leagues learning the other infield positions. Vancouver manager Billy Hitchcock worked with the youngster to improve his defense, renewing the Braves’ hopes that he could replace veteran Johnny Logan at the position.

Menke made the Milwaukee roster in 1962 and made his debut in Los Angeles on April 14 at second base. He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against Johnny Podres. His first hit came off the Phillies’ Ed Keegan on April 25. Menke played every position in the infield and even started a game in left field. He was at third base, filling in for an injured Eddie Matthews, when he hit his first home run off Pittsburgh’s Earl Francis on May 15. It was a grand slam that accounted for all of the Braves’ runs in a 5-4 loss. His offensive highlights were few and far between though. He hit just .192 in a couple of stays with the Braves and spent most of the season with the AAA Toronto Maple Leafs.

Menke claimed a permanent spot on the Milwaukee roster in 1963, even if he didn’t have a specific position. He played in a total of 147 games — 82 at shortstop, 51 at third base, 22 at second base, 1 at first base and 1 in left field. Braves boss John McHale wanted to see him stick at shortstop, but Charlie Dressen, his manager in Toronto, called him the best right-handed first baseman he’d ever seen — and he saw plenty of Gil Hodges.

“I honestly don’t have any preference,” Menke said. “That may be unusual for a ballplayer, but it’s the way I feel about it.”

In his first full season in the majors, Menke slashed .234/.289/.344 with 11 home runs and 50 RBIs, filling in wherever he was needed. The numbers weren’t great, but manager Bobby Bragan called him the team’s most improved hitter. He made even more strides in 1964 in what was his best offensive season. He batted .283 and swatted a career-best 20 home runs. He raised his walk totals from 37 to 68 and lowered his strikeouts from 106 to 77. He played a few games elsewhere on the diamond, but he became the team’s primary shortstop and did a great job at it as well.

A knee injury suffered in a home plate collision limited Menke’s playing time in 1965. His power numbers dropped, and his batting average fell to .243. By the end of the season, he was limited to a pinch-hitting role. He did make appearances in the Milwaukee Braves’ last home game (he lined to right against Ron Perranoski in the bottom of the 10th inning) and the final game as the Milwaukee Braves (he walked against Bill Singer and played an inning of shortstop).

In 1966, the Braves had moved to Atlanta, and Menke was the team’s starting shortstop for the first two seasons. He was sixth in the lineup in the first ever Atlanta Braves game on April 12, 1966 and went 0-for-3 with 3 walks — including the first base on balls in Atlanta history. His first season in Atlanta resulted in a .251 batting average and 15 home runs, but he dropped off considerably in 1967. His batting average fell to .227, and he was occasionally benched. Menke was a candidate for a change of scenery, and after the season, he and pitcher Denny Lemaster were traded to the Houston Astros for first baseman Chuck Harrison and shortstop Sonny Jackson.

You know you’ve made it big in Atlanta when you’re selling steaks for Kroger.

Menke still held to the belief that he’d be happy to play anywhere, but he let it be known that third base was probably the ideal place to put him. “My knee is better, but I don’t have the range I used to have at short. I think I have the quick reflexes and the arm for third,” he said. However, Houston managers Grady Hatton and Harry Walker needed him at second base in 1968 to replace the injured Joe Morgan, who tore ligaments in his knee after a collision with Tommee Agee. Menke played in 150 games in 1968 and hit .249 with a .334 on-base percentage, though his slugging percentage remained below .350. Nevertheless, he was named the Astros’ 1968 MVP, thanks in part to his ability to fill in for Morgan.

Everything clicked for Menke in 1969, as he moved back to shortstop and was named to his first All-Star team. After starting the season 0-for-10, manager Walker advised his shortstop to “Just try to hit the ball to right field. Forget everything else and just concentrate on that.” Menke promptly singled to right and caught fire after that. He put together 10- and 14-game hitting streaks and was at one point among the 10 ten hitters in the NL. He ended his season at .269 with 10 home runs and 90 RBIs, and he even picked up a few MVP votes. The 1970 season was an even better one, as Menke topped .300 for the only time in his career with a .304/.392/.441 slash line. He homered 13 times and had career bests with 92 RBIs, 171 hits and 82 runs scored. He celebrated his second All-Star pick by driving in 5 runs against the Dodgers on July 9 with a grand slam and an RBI single. Menke also demonstrated his versatility by playing in 6 positions — all four infield spots and both corner outfield spots.

“There is one of the finest men to ever play this game,” said Reds manager Sparky Anderson, who was a teammate of Menke’s in Toronto in 1962. He admired Menke’s eagerness to learn and his willingness to to change his approach from a home-run hitter to a contact hitter. “I think the game needs more Denis Menkes.” Anderson was about a year away from getting the one-and-only Menke in a trade.

Over the 1970-71 offseason, the Astros acquired Roger Metzger in a trade with the Cubs and had plans on making him the starting shortstop. Menke was moved over to first base to accommodate the newcomer. He handled the position change well — he committed just 3 errors for a .997 fielding percentage — but his power completely dried up, and his offense dropped to a .246 mark. Menke managed just 1 home run on the season, but he wasn’t the only Astro whose power numbers evaporated in the Astrodome that season. Dependable sluggers Bob Watson, Jim Wynn and Morgan all struggled to reach the fences that season.

Menke was part of a memorable trade on November 28, 1971. He, Morgan, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham and Cesar Geronimo were sent to the Reds for Tommy Helms, Lee May and Jimmy Stewart. Reds fans and sportswriters didn’t think much of the trade initially, but it handed Cincinnati a huge chunk of the team that became the Big Red Machine.

Menke didn’t last with the Reds long enough to become a part of that historic team. He did serve as the starting third baseman on the proto-Big Red Machine that won the NL pennant in 1972 before losing the World Series to the Oakland A’s. Menke was one of the rare Houston players who actually liked the Astrodome, but he looked forward to his new home.

“I knew Sparky wanted me. He said he would try to get me this winter,” Menke said. He proved to be an excellent third baseman, but his offense didn’t get any better outside of the cavernous Astrodome. He hit just .233, though he added 9 home runs and 50 RBIs. Menke batted .250 in the NL Championship Series against Pittsburgh but went just 2 for 24 against the A’s. One of those hits was a solo homer off Catfish Hunter in Game Five, which the Reds won 5-4. He also hit a deep fly ball that Oakland’s Joe Rudi turned into one of the best catches in World Series history.

Menke’s average fell below .200 in 1973, and he eventually lost playing time to rookie Dan Driessen. Menke worked with Driessen to get him more comfortable at third base. In doing so, he was paying back a favor that shortstop Roy McMillan did for him way back when Menke was a rookie on the Milwaukee Braves.

Menke was dealt back to the Astros for the 1974 season, but he retired in July after 30 ineffective games. The 34-year-old felt it was time, as he wasn’t helping the club anymore. That brought an end to his 13-year career, in which he had a slash line of .250/.343/.370. He had 1,270 hits that included 225 doubles, 40 triples and 101 home runs. He drove in 606 runs and scored 605 times, with 698 walks. Menke belongs to what has to be a pretty exclusive club: at some point in his career, he was his team’s leader in games played at each of the four infield positions. He spent more than half of his time at shortstop in his career and compiled a .961 fielding percentage there.

Menke had long been interested in real estate. He owned a couple hundred acres of land in Georgia and settled in Houston as a realtor. After about a year, though, he got the itch to get back into baseball. A proposal to become the general manager of a new minor-league club in Florida didn’t pan out, but he agreed to become the manager of the Burlington Bees, in the Brewers organization, in 1977. He was named Manager of the Year for taking a last-place team in the first half of the season and turning it into a division champ in the second half. The Bees won the Midwest League championship with big contributions from its shortstop, 20-year-old Paul Molitor.

“I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to play under Denis Menke,” Molitor said. “I hope he can help me with my defense.”

Menke then spent two years managing the Dunedin Blue Jays of the Florida State League, where he became acquainted with several future Toronto stars, including Jesse Barfield, Dave Stieb and Lloyd Moseby. He was added to the Toronto Blue Jays staff in 1980 as a first base coach. That appointment began a 20-year career as a big-league coach that saw Menke become one of the game’s most respected hitting coaches.

Menke’s coaching career took him from Toronto (1980-81) to Houston (1983-88) to Philadelphia (1989-96) to Cincinnati (1997-2000). He served as a minor-league hitting instructor in the Houston organization in 1982 before returning to the majors as a first base coach in ’83.

Wherever Menke went, good hitting followed. As a part of his seven-year career as the hitting coach of the Phillies, the team won the 1993 National League pennant. The Phillies noted Menke’s passing by pointing out the ’93 team led the NL in hits, runs, doubles, RBIs, walks, extra-base hits, total bases, on-base percentage and OPS.

Source: Washington Court House Record Herald, March 1, 1973.

“A lot of guys know the proper way you should be hitting,” explained Houston outfielder Terry Puhl. “Denis just has a way of selling you the goods. He’s got that mild-mannered sales pitch. He sort of lulls you into understanding what you should be doing and all of a sudden you’re doing it.”

Menke was renowned for his patience with hitters. Rather than tell people they needed to change their stance or their approach, he waited for them to come to him for help when their current approach wasn’t working.

“I went to Menk and I said, ‘I want to hit,’ remembered Kevin Stocker of the Phillies in 2002. “He said, ‘I had an idea you’d be coming.'”

Menke left baseball after the 2000 season and retired to Florida. He said he knew it was time to leave, according to his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“It was a little harder for me to be around some of the high-priced players and the so-called superstars. And I decided it was time to get out. The scout who signed me said if you ever get tired to the point you’re not enjoying the game, it’s time to get out. And that’s what I did.”

For more information: Oakcrest Funeral Services
Philadelphia Inquirer

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