RIP to Hal Breeden, a first baseman in the National League and a serious home run threat in Japan. He died at his home in Leesburg, Ga., on May 3 at the age of 76. Breeden played for the Chicago Cubs (1971) and Montreal Expos (1972-75), as well as the Hanshin Tigers (1976-1978).
Harold Noel Breeden was born on June 28, 1944, in Albany, Ga. Noah Breeden, his father, was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and was one of the first in the Army to cross the Rhine into Germany during World War II, Hal said. When he returned home after being wounded in combat, he was the person who got his sons interested in baseball. Like his older brother Danny Breeden, Hal attended Albany High School and joined his brothers in different summer leagues in the late 1950s and early ’60s. His American Legion coach, Paul Eames, used to work for the Milwaukee Braves organization and got him a tryout with the team at their Waycross, Ga., training camp. “They were going to let me go, but Boom Boom Beck [a minor-league pitching coach] was the one who got me signed. He told them he liked the way I swung the bat and said they ought to sign me,” Breeden later recalled.
Breeden signed with the Braves — for a dirt cheap price, he noted — and was assigned to Waycross of the Georgia-Florida League. In his first year of professional ball, Breeden became an All-Star first baseman, with a .330 batting average, 8 home runs and 64 RBIs. He later said he was so homesick, with Waycross being 150 miles from home, that he quit the team. “My father took the car away from me for comin’ home,” he related, “and my mother insisted that I go back.”
Breeden continued his hot hitting in 1964 with the Yakima Braves of the Northwest League. In 75 games, he slashed .406/.465/.620 with 10 homers and 58 RBIs. When the Braves promoted him to the AA Austin Senators of the Texas League in July, his first hit was a game-winning home run in the 12th inning of a game against Tulsa. He batted .270 for Austin and homered 10 times to finish the 1964 season with a combined .343 average. Unfortunately, Breeden’s short but incredible track record didn’t guarantee him any forward momentum in the organization — or even a starting job. Breeden was set to open 1965 as the Senators’ starting first baseman, but then the Braves decided to send prospect George “Sonny” Kopacz to Austin, and he took the starting job from Breeden.
Breeden cooled off considerably as a backup hitter and spent the next two seasons struggling in Austin before moving down to A-Ball for several seasons. Along the way, he kept running into Danny Breeden, who had signed with St. Louis about six months after Hal signed with the Braves. Danny, a catcher, put competition ahead of brotherly love and never tipped Hal off to a pitch — except for one time.
“He told me I’d better hit the dirt. The pitcher was going to be head hunting,” Hal recalled in 1965. “I was on the ground before the pitcher had finished his windup. It was a good thing too. The pitch might have killed me if I hadn’t known it was coming.”
Breeden regained his hitting stroke in a couple of Class-A leagues in 1967, and the 24-year-old resumed his progression up the Braves organization. He reached AAA Richmond in 1969 and put together an outstanding campaign in 1970. He led the International League with 37 home runs and was second with 116 RBIs. He also batted .293 and got on base at a .406 clip. While that monster of a season didn’t inspire the Braves to do anything more than to add Breeden to their 40-man roster after the season had ended, other teams were more intrigued. That December, the Chicago Cubs traded for him, sending veteran hurler Hoyt Wilhelm to the Braves in return. The Cubs collected both of the Breeden brothers in one day, acquiring catcher Danny from the Cincinnati organization in a separate trade.
The Breedens came into training camp in 1971 with modest expectations — Danny just wanted to back up Randy Hundley, and Hal was looking for a reason to continue with professional ball. “I’m not going back to the minors. A man can’t be a minor-league player all his life,” he said. “Being up here is what I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid and it’s why I’ve stuck with it all this time. But if I don’t make it this year, I guess I’ll just try something else. I don’t have to be a starter. Just pinch hitting would be fine.”
To compound matters, the Breedens’ father was taken ill, and both boys missed time from camp to visit him. In the end, though, they both got a chance to play with the Cubs in 1971 — Danny played in 29 games, and Hal in 23. Hal Breeden had 5 hits in 36 at-bats for a .139 average. After going hitless in his first 6 appearances, mostly as a pinch-hitter, he doubled off Houston’s Larry Dierker on April 22 for his first major-league hit. One day later, he homered off the Mets’ Charlie Williams for his first major-league round-tripper. He and Danny got into a few games together before they were both sent to AAA Tacoma. It would be Danny’s final games in the majors, but Hal was just getting started.
Prior to the start of the 1972 season, the Cubs traded Breeden to the Montreal Expos. Though the Expos assigned him to the minors, there was the expectation of a big league promotion. “They told me if I hit well, up over .300, and hit some home runs, they would call me up after a month,” Breeden said in mid-June. “I’m still waiting.”
Breeden hit .308 with 18 homers for the Peninsula Whips of the International League. The Expos, in a case of “better late than never,” promoted him to the majors in July. Breeden saw time as a pinch-hitter, and as his batting average climbed up over .300, he started a few games at first base and played a little in the corner outfield spots as well. He eventually cooled off to a .230 batting average with 3 home runs and 10 RBIs, but he had established himself as a good bat off the Montreal bench and spent most of the next three seasons on the big-league roster.
Breeden had his best season in 1973 after working extensively with hitting coach Larry Doby. With first baseman Mike Jorgensen underperforming, the right-handed-hitting Breeden was able to work into a platoon situation, giving him extended playing time in the majors for the first time in his career. He took advantage of it, too, with a .275/.353/.535 slash line that included 15 home runs and 43 RBIs in 106 games. Breeden joined Joe Cronin as the only players (at the time) to hit pinch-hit home runs in both games of a doubleheader. Breeden accomplished the feat on July 13 against Atlanta. He also went 4-for-5 with 2 home runs against the Phillies on August 30, including a long ball off ace Steve Carlton. A couple of days later, still facing the Phillies, Breeden set an Expos record with 12 total bases in one game, thanks to a double, two triples and a home run. The Georgia country boy was popular with his teammates and was a bit of a novelty among the Montreal sportswriting community. Articles about him occasionally exaggerated his quotes to play up his accent and his background.
“They say Ah’m a dead ringer for my grandfather, Luther Breeden,” he said, as reported by The Gazette from Montreal. “He was a railroad engineer. I don’t know if he was good at lifting barrels of beer or not, but he could hoist more jackpine than any man who’s ever been seen back home.”
It seemed to be all in good fun. Expos coach Dave Bristol called Breeden “Bo” or “Bodine,” but he was a North Carolinian himself. Breeden originally tried to give Tennessean Jim Hickman the nickname of “Bodine,” but it rebounded back on him instead. Breeden, with an impressive power stroke, certainly lived up to the ideal of the strong country boy, but he adapted to the finer points of hitting that Doby taught him.
The Expos moved veteran Ron Fairly to first base in 1974, and that move returned Breeden to a reserve role. He didn’t hit his first home run of the season until late June, and his performance dipped to a .247 batting average in 79 games, with 2 homers and 20 RBIs. He still managed to draw 24 walks for an impressive .330 on-base percentage. He also was at bat in one of baseball’s more infamous injuries. He was facing Dodgers pitcher Tommy John when John walked off the mound in pain, having thrown a sinker that rolled to the plate. John’s left arm was badly injured, and his career was thought to be over. It took the reconstructive surgery that now now bears his name to bring John back to the majors.
Breeden got off to a slow start in 1975 and was sent back to the minors for much of the summer. He returned in September and finished the season with a .135 batting average across 24 games for Montreal. The first baseman, now 31 years old, decided to ask for Expos for his release so that he could sign with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League in 1976. Hanshin finished in second place that year, just 2 games behind the Yomiuri Giants, and Breeden was a big reason for the Tigers’ success. He slammed 40 home runs, good for second in the league behind Sadaharu Oh with 49 and tied with Gene Martin. His 92 RBIs were fifth in the league, and he also batted .261 with a .901 OPS. He continued to slam home runs in 1977, with 37 round-trippers, though his average fell to .236. Breeden suffered a knee injury in early 1978 and was released by Hanshin after 17 games. He initially retired after the release but mounted a comeback with the independent Miami Amigos of the short-lived Inter-American League in 1979. He retired for good after the season.
In parts of 5 major-league seasons, Breeden slashed .243/.321/.413. He had 148 hits that included 28 doubles, 6 triples and 21 home runs. He drove in 76 runs, scored 61 times and drew 69 walks. Breeden also hit .289 with 146 homers in 12 minor-league campaigns and had 79 homers in 3 seasons in Japan.
After his release in Japan, Breeden went back home to Albany and started a crop-dusting business named Breeden Agricultural Aviation. He left the business to play for the Amigos in 1979. When he left baseball for good, he returned to Georgia with a different career in mind. Breeden said in a 2005 interview that he had two childhood ambitions — to be a baseball player and a Georgia state trooper. So with his playing career officially over, he traded one youthful ambition for another. He worked as an undercover narcotics officer for seven years in his hometown of Albany, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He was elected Sheriff of Lee County in 1988 and served in that position until 2008.