Obituary: Ken Reitz (1951-2021)

RIP to Ken Reitz, a Gold Glove third baseman who played for 11 seasons in the majors. He died unexpectedly on March 31 at his home in St. Charles, Mo., at the age of 69. No cause of death has been discovered yet, though foul play had been ruled out. Brett Reitz, his son, issued the following statement through the Cardinals organization: “On behalf of my dad and my family I’d like to thank the Cardinals organization for allowing my father to live out his dream. Also Cardinals fans for the endless support over the years. The only thing my dad loved as much as his family was baseball. He ate, slept and breathed baseball, and truly loved the city of St. Louis and the Cardinals. The loss of ‘Grandpa Kenny,’ as his six grandkids called him, is heartbreaking. He will be truly missed.”

Reitz played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1972-75, 1977-80), San Francisco Giants (1976), Chicago Cubs (1981) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1982).

Kenneth John Reitz was born in San Francisco on June 24, 1951. His father was a semipro ballplayer and a beer distributor, and his older brother Roy played in the San Francisco Giants organization from 1963 until 1966. Reitz described his childhood thusly, and he may have exaggerated one or two details:

I have always wanted to be a professional baseball player. I was born with a baseball glove in one hand and a bat in the other. Every night at the dinner table we used to slide into the soup. My father practically had a bat rack built into our front room. My sister never had any dolls, just a hammer and some nails to repair our cracked bats. My mother is the family statistician, cook, trainer and good listener after a bad game. Her specialty dish is sliced baseballs and cream for dessert.”

Ken Reitz’s rookie questionnaire
Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 20, 1980.

Reitz attended Jefferson High School in Daly City, Calif. He played on the high school baseball team as well as a couple of other sports, and in the summers, he played in the North Peninsula League, an amateur league that had teams from California to Alaska. He was the starting shortstop on the Pacifica Invaders and led the NPL in hitting in 1968 with a .419 mark. He was named to the All-League first team that year. Reitz also rode horses and ended up owning a herd of them at his offseason home in Tulsa. In 1969, he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 31st Round of the Amateur Draft.

Reitz played on a couple of low-minors teams for the Cardinals, as well as some winter ball in Florida, in the later half of 1969. He hit around .300 combined, with decent doubles power. He hardly walked at all, and that would be an ongoing issue throughout his career. Defensively, Reitz was moved all over the infield and had mixed results at every position. He spent a full season with St. Petersburg of the Florida State League in 1970 and batted .290 with 33 doubles, 6 home runs and 75 RBIs. at one point, he had a 17-game hitting streak. Aside from a couple of games at first base, manager Joe Cunningham kept Reitz at third base, and he ended up as an All-Star at the position by the end of the season. By 1971, he was playing for the AA Arkansas Travelers and was considered the best gloveman in the league at third base.

Reitz made it to the AAA Tulsa Oilers of the American Association by 1972, when he was 21. He batted .279 with 15 home runs and was brought to the majors that September. He picked up 2 hits in his major-league debut on September 5 against Montreal and never slowed down the rest of the month. In 21 games, he hit .359, including 7 hits in a September 8 doubleheader against the Mets (he had a 4-for-4 game and a 3-for-6 game). He only had one hit on September 19, but it was a game-winning single in the 10th inning that led the Cardinals to a 2-1 victory over the Phillies and gave Bob Gibson his 17th win of the season. The only thing that could stop Reitz was a partially dislocated shoulder suffered in a game in Chicago that brought his season to an untimely end.

Joe Torre, who was the third baseman of the 1972 team, moved to first base in ’73 to accommodate Reitz. The rookie struggled at the plate, with a .235 batting average and a .256 on-base percentage — he walked 9 times in 147 games, though he struck out only 25 times. His first career home run — one of 6 on the year — came in San Francisco on May 9 off Ron Bryant. It was an appropriate spot, as Candlestick Park had a special place in his heart. “I used to see about 50 games a year here, sometimes cutting high school classes. I only lived about a 20-minute walk from Candlestick, so I used to come with a lot of friends,” he explained. “We always got in free too, because it was real easy to climb over the right field screen.” Some of those friends and a few members of his family were on hand to witness the home run — presumably they all paid admission.

Reitz hits the deck after an inside fastball from Phillies pitcher Darrell Brandon. He responded by hitting a game-winning single on the very next pitch. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 20, 1972.

Reitz led all National League third basemen with a .974 fielding percentage. He would accomplish that feat six times in his career. He earned the nickname of “Zamboni” for the way he scooped up ground balls on the Busch Stadium turf. Mostly, though, his teammates called him “Reitzy.” He also was called “Wahoo” early in his career, for his penchant of losing his temper and throwing or kicking any equipment that was within reach. The nickname also accounted for the fact that he was part Cherokee.

Reitz figured out hitting in 1974, with a .271 batting average, 7 home runs and 54 RBIs. He also drew 23 walks, though his on-base percentage was just shy of .300. Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst liked his game — except for his speed. Reitz grounded into 25 double plays in ’74 to lead all of baseball. “The way he runs, you know he hadn’t had any cheap hits,” Schoendienst said. “But he loves to play. If he just had a little below-average speed, he’d be great, but he’s soooo slow.”

Despite his fine fielding, Reitz won just one Gold Glove, and it happened to come in one of his worst defensive seasons. It was in 1975, when he appeared in 161 games. He had a decent year at the plate, with a .269 batting average, 25 doubles and 63 RBIs. But in the field, he committed a career-worst 23 errors and had a .946 fielding percentage. Still, voters decided to award him as the best-fielding third basemen in the NL. Reitz never won another Gold Glove because Mike Schmidt won the award every year from 1976 until 1984 — Schmidt’s many home runs shouldn’t have factored into the defensive award, but they apparently counted for more than Reitz’s defensive prowess.

The Cardinals traded Reitz to the San Francisco Giants in December of 1975 for starting pitcher Pete Falcone and handed the starter’s role to rookie Hector Cruz. Though Cruz had more power than Reitz, he couldn’t hit or field as well as his predecessor. Reitz, meanwhile, was glad for the trade, as a lifelong Giants fan. “I’d like to help turn the Giants’ franchise around. It was such a great one when I was a kid, with Mays, McCovey, Marichal and those wonderful guys. It has been painful to see baseball going down in San Francisco,” he said. Reitz couldn’t bring the Giants above .500 all by himself, but he turned in another consistent offensive performance with a .267 batting average, 5 home runs and 66 RBIs. He fell off late in the season, and he later explained that he, like the rest of the team, basically gave up.

“The effort was not toward the team, but more of an individual effort. You’d make a great play and come back to the dugout, and nobody would shake your hand,” he said of his time in San Francisco. “I was hitting around .280, but the last three weeks of the season I just got sick of it and gave up. I just didn’t care,”

A little over a year after the trade, the Giants sent Reitz back to St. Louis in exchange for pitcher Lynn McGlothen. The reason? “We wanted to strengthen our position at third base,” said Cards general manager Bing Devine. Cruz went back to his original position in the outfield, and Reitz had one of his better offensive performances in 1977 — he reached career highs in home runs with 17 and RBIs with 79. His batting average dipped to .261, but his slugging percentage of .412 was the best of his career as well. At one stretch he had 4 home runs in 5 games, and he clubbed 2 homers against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 28. The first one was a grand slam off Grant Jackson. The second one was a 3-run shot off Mario Mendoza, an infielder and source of the term “Mendoza Line.” He was making his first-ever pitching performance in a 13-3 blowout loss.

In a seven year stretch between 1974 and 1980, Reitz had batting averages of .267, .268, .269, .270 and .271, as well as outliers of .261 and .246. He was an All-Star in 1980, when he had the .270 average. He also walked 22 times in 151 games for an even .300 on-base percentage, the highest mark of his career. He committed a mere 8 errors at third for a .979 fielding percentage. Reitz finished in sixth place in the All-Star voting but was selected as the starter when Schmidt couldn’t appear and was hitless in two at-bats. The NL won 4-2, with Bruce Sutter of the Cubs working 2 innings to record the save. About a half a year later, Sutter played another part in Reitz’s career. The Cardinals acquired the ace closer from Chicago on December 9, 1980, in exchange for Leon Durham, Reitz and a player to be named later, who ended up being Ty Waller.

Typically, Reitz would be one of the hottest hitters in baseball for the first month or two of the season before settling into the .260s or .270s. He got off to a 3-for-3 start in 1981 with a pair of doubles on Opening Day for the Cubs on April 9, but his offense quickly fell off the table. He was batting in the .230s by the time of the ’81 strike and finished the season hitting .215 in his only season with the Cubs. He was released by the team at the end of spring training in 1982. The combination of Reitz and The Cubs ended up being a bad combination, as he never hit that well in Wrigley Field in his career, and the Cubs fans were upset at losing Sutter. “There were problems right away last year. The fans, the media, everybody got down on me real good,” he said after he was a free agent. “They felt the Cubs gave away Sutter and got nothing in return. Sutter’s a very rare player. I don’t blame them for being upset.”

Cubs manager puts a cap on Ken Reitz’s head after he was acquired by Chicago in a trade. Source: The Gazette Sun, March 29, 1981.

Reitz and his family went back to St. Louis to wait for his next opportunity. It came in May when he signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates already had an All-Star third baseman in Bill Madlock, but Reitz said he was willing to serve as a pinch-hitter and backup. He made 7 appearances with the Pirates in late May and early June but was hitless in 10 at-bats. He was released on June 5, ending his major-league career.

In 11 major-league seasons, Reitz had a .260/.290/.359 slash line. He had 1,243 hits that included 243 doubles, 12 triples and 68 home runs. He drove in 548 runs and scored 366 runs. While he only had 184 walks in his career, he didn’t strike out much either — he averaged 62 K’s in an average 62-game season. His lifetime fielding percentage at third base is .970, which is ninth-best all-time — and ahead of the likes of Manny Machado, Evan Longoria, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Gaetti.

Reitz later acknowledged another problem that contributed to his quick exit from baseball. When he got off to a bad start with the Cubs, he started taking amphetamines. Drugs and alcohol took a toll on his professional and personal life until he kicked his addictions. “The first time I took them, the fans were calling me a blankity-blank and I couldn’t even hear them,” Reitz told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1984. “But I found out I couldn’t do without [them.] I didn’t know how to stop taking them.

“There’s not a category to describe how screwed up on drugs I was,” he added. “I know I messed up, but looking back now, I can almost laugh at it. Life is much more fun now. It’s kind of lifted me out of the doldrums. I realize I’ve got more important things.”

Reitz had retired to playing slow-pitch softball by 1983 when he got a call from the Cardinals asking if he wanted to try a comeback. The AAA Louisville Redbirds were in a pennant race, and Reitz was signed as insurance. He had a hit in 3 games and received a paycheck for $468 — a far cry from his last baseball-related paycheck of $15,000. “I like it better this way,” he said, “because you appreciate what you’ve got. I think it’s true what they say — that money is the root of all evil.”

Reitz returned to the minor leagues in 1985, spending a season with Tulsa and two seasons with the San Jose Bees of the Class-A California League. The Bees were filled with veteran ex-major leaguers, including Steve Howe, Mike Norris and Steve McCatty. The team was nicknamed the “Bad News Bees” for the number of ex-major-leaguers with a checkered past, and Reitz and a teammate turned a vacant trainer’s room in its ballpark into an apartment. He even pitched a few times before calling it quits for good at the end of the 1987 season. Reitz also played with the Orlando Juice of the Senior League in 1989, taking a leave of absence from his regular job as running a drug education program for youths in several St. Louis hospitals.

Reitz became an avid golfer in his retirement and played frequently on the Celebrity Players Tour. He was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

For more information: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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4 thoughts on “Obituary: Ken Reitz (1951-2021)

  1. I pitched one game against Kenny’s Jefferson H.S. team in 1968 for South San Francisco H.S. He went 2-3 against me and they beat us 3-0. In the summers of 1968 and 1969 we were teammates on the Daly City Joe DiMaggio League team (he played SS and I played 2B). Later, when he and the Cardinals came to town, he provided tickets for me to see him play. In the mid-80’s, I saw him play for the San Jose Bees (Steve Howe started that night). He got 2 hits and I spoke with him after the game. Much later, I attended a banquet and sat at a table with one of his brothers when Ken was inducted into the Daly City Sports Hall of Fame. He was unable to attend, however. Very sorry to hear of his passing. He was a great teammate and a genuinely nice person. No one loved baseball more than he did.

    Liked by 1 person

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