RIP to Ed Armbrister, an outfielder who, intentional or not, was part of one of the most notorious moments in World Series history. He died on March 17 in Nassau, Bahamas, after battling diabetes for several years. He was 72 years old. Armbrister played for the Cincinnati Reds from 1973 until 1977 and is one of seven Bahamian ballplayers to reach the major leagues.
Sam Rodgers, president of the Bahamas Baseball Association, offered his condolences to Armbrister’s family and friends. “Ed was not only one of our finest baseball players, he was a significant contributor to the development of baseball in the country, particularly in the inner city. His passion was with the inner-city kids and the Community Baseball League. That’s where he made his greatest contribution to the development of baseball in The Bahamas. He always wanted to assist. He will be missed by me as a friend and by the baseball community of The Bahamas. I just want to encourage his family and friends to be strong in these trying times.”
Edison Rosanda Armbrister was born in Nassau on July 4, 1948. He signed with the Houston Astros as an amateur free agent and made his professional debut in 1967 as an 18-year-old with the Cocoa Astros of the Florida State League. At first, he wasn’t much of a hitter, with a .211 batting average in 100 games and almost as many strikeouts (63) as hits (71). He showed some development in the Florida Instructional League, and when he returned to Cocoa in 1968, he was a much more developed ballplayer. He batted .261 and stole 35 bases. He added some pop to his offense starting in 1969 with the Peninsula Astros of the Class-A Carolina League, as he hit 8 triples and 8 home runs.
Armbrister spent a couple of season with the AA Columbus Astros. He struggled to adapt to the pitching in 1970, but by 1971 he was once again playing at his usual pace — .298 average, 9 home runs, 58 runs scored. His outfield play, which had been pretty poor at the start of his career, had made good strides. The only part of his game that hadn’t shown any improvement was the Astros’ attempt to make him a part-time third baseman. There were multiple attempts to get him playing time at third base, and Armbrister never once had a fielding average above .900 to show for it. Still, he had become one of a group of talented Astros outfield prospects that included Cesar Cedeno and Cesar Geronimo.
In November of 1971, Armbrister was part of a massive trade that changed the face of two franchises. Houston sent Armbrister, Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Joe Morgan and Denis Menke to the Cincinnati Reds for Tommy Helms, Lee May and Jimmy Stewart. Houston traded a wealth of talent to get back a slugger in May, who could homer in the Astrodome but couldn’t make the Astros a contender. The Reds, meanwhile, picked up multiple pieces of their feared Big Red Machine team and won two World Series.
The Reds moved Armbrister up to AAA Indianapolis and kept him there for most of the next three seasons. They abandoned the whole third baseman idea after he committed 6 errors in 6 games in 1972 and kept him in the outfield for good. He quickly adapted to the highest level of the minor leagues, batting over .300 in 1972 and ’73 and reaching double-digits in home runs in 1973 and ’74. The Reds were slow to bring him up to the majors for anything more than a September call-up, though. Part of the problem was the unbelievable wealth of talent the Reds had in their system at the time. Armbrister shared the outfield in the 1973 Indianapolis Indians with fellow rookies George Foster and Ken Griffey Sr. Up at the major-league level, Pete Rose, Geronimo and Bobby Tolan were roaming the outfield for the Reds. Though Armbrister could hit for average, had good speed and a little power, he was in a outfield logjam.
Armbrister made his major-league debut on August 31, 1973, and struck out in his only at-bat against the Padres. He picked up his first hit the very next day against San Diego’s Randy Jones. The Reds then visited Houston in a revisit of the infamous trade. All eight players involved in the deal played in the series, and Armbrister had 4 hits, including his first major-league triple and home run. Both extra-base hits came off starter Jerry Reuss, and Armbrister added a couple of fine catches in center field as well. In 18 games, he hit .216 for the Reds. He had 6-at-bats (a single and 5 strikeouts) in the postseason as well, as the Reds lost to the Mets in the NL Championship Series in five games.
Armbrister spent most of 1974 in the minors, appearing in just 9 games for the Reds and managing 2 hits in 7 at-bats. He made the team in 1975, though, and stayed on the big-league roster for the next three seasons. Still, his primary role was as a pinch-hitter. In 59 games in ’75, he had 7 starts and 72 plate appearances, and he hit .185 with just one extra-base hit, a double. He had a couple of appearances in the NLCS against Pittsburgh, picking up the go-ahead RBI in the deciding Game Three with a sacrifice fly. Armbrister also had 4 plate appearances in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. One of those was the most famous sacrifice bunt in World Series history.
It took place during Game Three, on October 14, 1975. It was a 5-5 tie going into the bottom of the tenth inning, with Boston’s Jim Willoughby on the mound. Geronimo led off the inning with a single to right, and Armbrister was sent in to pinch-hit for Rawley Eastwick. The expectation was that he would lay down a bunt to advance the runner into scoring position, and that’s exactly what he did. He bunted the ball about a foot in front of home plate. Boston catcher Carlton Fisk immediately jumped up to grab the ball and try for the force play. Armbrister moved out of the batter’s box toward first, hesitated, and then kept moving — right in front of Fisk. The two collided, and Fisk made a wild throw to second base as soon as he was able to get free from the Reds batter. Geronimo advanced all the way to third base, and Armbrister reached first base. And then the game screeched to a halt as Fisk and Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson argued with home plate umpire Larry Barnett about the play. They thought that it was batter interference. Barnett ruled it was a collision, and not a deliberate act by Armbrister. Play eventually resumed with runners on the corners and nobody out. Johnson brought in Roger Moret to pitch, and he intentionally walked Pete Rose and struck out Merv Rettenmund before Morgan ended the game with an RBI single over a drawn-in outfield. The Reds won the game 6-5 and defeated the Red Sox in seven games to become World Champions.
Not surprisingly, the Red Sox and Reds had two very different takes on the play. “It’s a damn joke to lose a ballgame that way,” Fisk said. “I don’t know what the damn rule is, all I know is that he [Armbrister] ran into me. If that’s not interference, then I don’t know what is.”
Reds manager Sparky Anderson was pretty diplomatic, stating, “I can only say that whenever you hit a ball, you have the opportunity to run to first base. It was strictly a judgment call and we can’t argue with the umpires’ judgment.”
Armbrister said this about the play: “I had a feeling it was going to be a play where he hit me or I hit him. I don’t feel I interfered. I didn’t step back to get in his way.”
Barnett afterwards made clear that interference only takes place when the batter deliberately gets in the way, and he ruled that Armbrister didn’t have intent to interfere. The baserunner does have the right to run to first base after making contact, and Armbrister’s path to first base happened to be occupied by Fisk at the time. You can see the play for yourself in the video below. There is a lot of action happening in about a second-and-a-half, and it’s hard to fault the umpire for having to make the split-second decision about four decades before the advent of instant replay. But it does appear that Fisk moved into Armbrister’s lane, leaving the runner nowhere to go, and then he made a questionable throw to second base to try and force the speedy Geronimo. Had Fisk not made the throw and tagged Armbrister out, it’s a runner on second with one out, and the whole complexion of the inning changes.
Winning the World Series was a great accomplishment that helped end an otherwise disappointing year on a high note for Armbrister. A starter for his entire career in the minors, he had never experienced a season where he hardly ever made the starting lineup. He admitted that he was pressing, and that led to 19 strikeouts in 1975 against just 12 hits. His teammates appreciated his abilities — Morgan called him the best bunter he had ever seen — but that didn’t make sitting on the bench any easier.
“I’m not here to sit around and bunt. I can play, too,” Armbrister said. “Maybe the day will come when I wind up with someone else and play. But just sitting here, every day, is getting old. It is sickening.”
Though he wasn’t going to get more playing time with the Reds’ outfield of Foster, Griffey and Geronimo, Armbrister made the most of his opportunities in 1976. He slashed .296/.341/.462, scoring 20 runs in 73 games. On one of his rare starts on July 31 against the Padres, he went 4-for-6 and homered twice in a 12-1 win. The Reds repeated as World Champions, beating the Yankees in the World Series, and Armbrister’s only appearance in the postseason was a (non-controversial) sacrifice bunt in the NLCS against Philadelphia.
Armbrister continued to be a useful role-player in 1977, with a .256 batting average. He started a career-high 17 games in the outfield, though his fielding was below average due to a lack of work. In fact, he hit better as a substitute than as a starter. While Armbrister may have envisioned getting more playing opportunities with a new team, the Reds weren’t about to let him go.
“Armbrister is in a difficult situation,” a unnamed Reds official told the Advocate-Messenger of Danville, Ky. “He is too valuable to us to trade him and too good to be sitting on the bench. There are not many teams that he wouldn’t start for. But what do you do with him? We would like to play him more but who do you take out? It’s a problem.”
Armbrister underwent elbow surgery over the 1977-78 offseason to have a calcium spur removed from his right elbow. He hadn’t regained full throwing ability come spring training, and the Reds had no place for him on the roster. Faced with being a declared a free agent a week before the season started or taking a demotion to the minor leagues, Armbrister went back to the Indianapolis Indians. He vowed to be back in the majors soon, and preferably with a new team.
“My future with the Reds is slim and none,” he said. “I don’t have much to prove in the minors, but if I can get my stuff together maybe I can get someone else interested in me. I know I can play in the big leagues.” Armbrister had a strong season in Indianapolis, batting .276 with 8 home runs, 53 RBIs and 32 stolen bases, but no major-league team made an effort to trade for him. He was assigned to Yucatan of the Class AAA Mexican League, and he stayed in Mexico through the 1980 season. That was his last year of pro ball, at the age of 31.
In parts of 5 seasons, Armbrister played in 224 games and had a .245/.307/.377 slash line. He had 65 hits that included 11 doubles, 6 triples and 4 home runs. He stole 10 bases, drove in 19 runs and scored 46 times. He was a below-average corner outfielder, but he didn’t commit an error in 47 innings at center field in his career. In 9 seasons in the minor leagues, Armbrister had a .274 batting average with 66 home runs and 172 stolen bases. Of the seven major-leaguers born in the Bahamas, only Andre Rogers (854 games) played in more games than Armbrister.
His obituary in The Nassau Guardian notes that after retiring from baseball, Armbrister became a craps table dealer in casinos back in Nassau, and he coached several youth teams and worked in local government and consumer affairs. He was also a consultant in the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture.