RIP to infielder Rennie Stennett, who is probably best remembered for a record-setting 7-for-7 game in 1975. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that he was a quality second baseman for more than a decade and won a couple of World Series championships. He died of cancer on May 18 at the age of 72. Stennett played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1971-1979) and San Francisco Giants (1980-81).
“We are saddened by the loss of such a beloved member of the Pirates family. Rennie was a great player on the field, and an even better person off of it,” Pirates president Travis Williams said in a statement. “A member of our World Series championships in both 1971 and 1979 who remained a very active and cherished member of our Alumni Association, Rennie symbolized what it meant to be a Pittsburgh Pirate.
“Our sincere condolences to his daughter Renee [Lujo], her husband Rolando and their sons Rolando Jr. and Rylan, Rennie’s son Rennie Jr., his daughter Nevaeh and son Camden, as well as Rennie’s son Roberto,” Williams said.
Renaldo Antonio Stennett was born in Colon, Panama. For years, it was thought that his birth date was April 5, 1951, but his family confirmed that he actually was born in 1949. According to Stennett’s SABR biography, he grew up in the Canal Zone of Panama, and his father worked on tugboats there. Stennett was a pitcher growing up, and his catcher his future Pirate teammate, Manny Sanguillen. However, Stennett spoke no Spanish, having grown up in the Canal Zone, and Sanguillen didn’t yet speak English. So whenever there was a meeting on the mound, the third baseman would have to translate for the two countrymen.
Stennett signed with the Pirates organization in 1969, when they thought he was 18 years old — he was actually 20. He didn’t stay in the minor leagues long, and he was pretty successful wherever the Pirates sent him. Some Latin American ballplayers struggle early in their careers, and the language barrier could play a big part in it. Stennett had to deal with the realities of being a dark-skinned ballplayer in places like Gastonia, N.C., and Salem, Va., but at least he didn’t have communication problems.
In Stennett’s first season for the Gastonia Pirates of the Western Carolinas League in 1969, he batted .288 and scored 51 runs as an outfielder. He one of four players who hit a league-leading 7 triples — one of those players was another Panamanian, Ben Oglive. By 1970, Stennett was starting to gain some notice as a Pirates prospect. The fact that he was an All-Star in the Carolina League for the Class-A Salem Rebels didn’t hurt. He led the league with a .326 batting average and 176 hits. When Salem manager Billy Klaus was asked about rookies with the most potential, he immediately pointed out Renaldo Stennett, as he was known then.
“A lithe outfielder from Venezuela, still only 20, the rifle-armed youngster more than lived up to his promise,” reported the Newport News Daily Press (while getting his birth country wrong).
Stennett had been a little erratic in the outfield, so the Pirates tried moving him to second base in 1971 with the AAA Charleston Charlies of the International League. The experiment worked, as he held his own in the field and continued to hit at a torrid pace. The team’s plan was to keep him at Charleston for a full season or two to give him time to develop as a second baseman, but plans changed. Stennett was batting .344 when the Pirates brought him to the major leagues in July. Pittsburgh infielders Dave Cash and Richie Hebner were about to lose time for military reserve requirements, so Stennett was called upon to strengthen a depleted roster. He was meant to be a temporary fix until Cash and Hebner returned to the roster, but once he reached the majors, Stennett became too hot a hitter to demote.
After going hitless in his first couple of games, Stennett slapped a couple of hits against the San Diego Padres on July 17. He drove in his first major-league run and drew his first walk in the game. After a 3-for-4 performance against San Francisco on July 22, his batting average shot up over .300, and it remained there for most of the season. He even flirted with .400 in September before ending the season with a .353 mark in 50 games. Pittsburgh won 97 games and defeated the Orioles in the World Series. Stennett was not a part of the postseason roster, but he proved to be a valuable contributor who hit in 18 consecutive games during the Pirates’ home stretch.
Stennett did participate in history on September 1, 1971. He was the starting second baseman and leadoff hitter for baseball’s first all-minority lineup. He was joined by Gene Clines (CF), Roberto Clemente (RF), Willie Stargell (LF), Manny Sanguillen (C), Dave Cash (3B), Al Oliver (1B), Jackie Hernandez (SS) and Dock Ellis (P). The Pirates knocked off the Phillies 10-7, and Stennett led off Pittsburgh’s 5-run first inning by singling off Woodie Fryman and scoring on a Clemente single. He had 2 hits and drove in a run in the game.
Cash remained Pittsburgh’s starting second baseman in 1972, but Stennett found his way into the game more often than not. He played 49 games at second base, 31 games in right field, 10 in left, 6 at shortstop, and 5 in center field. He also pinch-hit on 22 occasions. On the whole, it was a remarkably consistent season for Stennett. He batted .286 in the regular season and then .286 in the NL Championship Series against Cincinnati. The Reds won the series, but Stennett was a big contributor to one of the Pirates’ two wins. After he had misplayed a Johnny Bench base hit for a triple in left field, he tracked down a Cedar Geronimo fly ball and fired home to get Bench, who was trying to score. That kept the score 2-0 in favor of Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh came back to win 3-2. Stennett tied the game with an infield single that scored Hebner from third base.
The Pirates continued to use Stennett as a utility player in 1973, and his batting average tumbled to .242 — though he managed a career best 10 home runs. After that season, Cash was traded to Philadelphia, and Stennett was given the second base job in 1974. Though his quick rise to the majors had prevented him from mastering the position in the minor leagues, he had become one of the league’s best fielders at the position.
“I got to change my scouting report on that kid,” commented Orioles scout Jim Russo. “I said he had iron hands and couldn’t play second base. My gosh, he has more range than any second baseman in the majors, and those iron hands have become soft.”
Stennett came into his own as a ballplayer in that 1974 season. He played in 157 games and slashed .291/.322/.374 while fielding second base at a .980 clip. He homered 7 times, drove in 56 runs and also whacked 29 doubles. He had a career high 196 base hits while changing baseball’s perception of what he could do as a player. After a couple of hitless games to start the season, he went on a 14-game hitting streak and got on base in 24 straight games. He worked on his defense and turned more than 100 double plays. He also become a leader in the infield and was one of the first people on the mound to talk to a struggling pitcher. At the end of the season, Stennett even picked up a few MVP votes.
Stennett admitted he was pressing early in the season, having heard all the criticisms about his play. “Now I don’t read the newspapers anymore,” he said that September. “I know I can do the job, so I go out and do it. I have tremendous confidence in myself.” It wasn’t just confidence that inspired his play. Pirates general manager Joe Brown said, “Nobody in baseball, not even Pete Rose, hustles more than Rennie Stennett.”
Stennett had an equally fine year in 1975, batting .286 with a career-high 62 RBIs, but the one game that brought him his baseball immortality came on September 16 against the Chicago Cubs. It was a 22-0 laugher at Wrigley Field, and everyone in the Pirates starting lineup had at least one hit. But nobody had as many hits as Stennett did that day. He went a perfect 7-for-7, which had not been accomplished in a 9-inning game since Wilbert Robinson in 1892 — and nobody has matched it since. Stennett also scored 5 times and drove in 2 runs. Here’s how he did it:
- Stennett led off the game with a double off starter Rick Reuschel and scored on a Hebner single. Later that same inning, he greeted new pitcher Tom Dettore with an RBI single and scored on a Willie Stargell base hit.
- He singled in the top of the third inning and scored when Hebner clobbered a 2-run homer off Dettore.
- With Dettore still on the mound in the fifth, Stennett led off the inning with a double to left and scored on an Al Oliver single. The Pirates batted around again that inning, and Stennett added another RBI single, this time off Oscar Zamora.
- He led off the seventh inning with a single to center field off Buddy Schultz and scored when Dave Parker singled to left.
- Stennett faced another Reuschel — Paul — in the eighth inning and tripled. Manager Danny Murtaugh removed him for a pinch-runner (Willie Randolph, who started his career with 30 games in Pittsburgh before going to the Yankees).
Stennett also became just the fourth player to get two hits in an inning, twice in a game, joining Max Carey, John Hodapp and Sherm Lollar. “You gotta be a good hitter to get seven hits in a game, but you gotta be lucky, too,” he said after the game. “I thought that last one [the triple] might get caught.”
Stennett stumbled a bit in 1976, but he bounced right back in ’77 to become one of the National League’s hottest hitters. In fact, he was right behind teammate Dave Parker in the batting title race for much of the season. He was slashing a fine .336/.376/.430 when he suffered a horrific injury on August 21. He was on first base and running to second when Giants shortstop Tim Foli innocently told him there was no play on him, and Stennett made an awkward half-slide instead of a full slide. As a result, he suffered a fractured right fibula and a dislocated ankle. He was lost for the rest of the season, and the Pirates had to make do at second base with Phil Garner, moved over from third base, and rookie Dale Berra.
Stennett never was the same player. Before the leg injury, he had a slash line of .285/.314/.379 in 7 seasons, with an OPS+ of 94. After it, he has a slash line of .241/.282/.298 in 4 seasons, with an OPS+ of 61. He lost some of his mobility at second base as well. In 1978, he split time at second with Garner, with Mario Mendoza also getting some playing time. Stennett’s batting average was .243, and he lost what power he had, with a slugging percentage of .309 in 106 games. His batting average remained in the .230s and .240s for the remainder of his career.
“My ankle starts to hurt when I least expect it,” he said in a 1978 interview. Some days I feel good, then have to be taken out in the seventh inning. It’s just going to be one of those years, and I have to make the best of it.”
Stennett had 333 at-bats in 108 games in 1979, his lowest totals in the majors since his partial rookie year of 1971. He batted .243, and when the Pirates acquired Bill Madlock and moved Garner over to second permanently, Stennett made just 17 starts at second base after the All-Star break. By September, he was limited to an occasional pinch-hit. The “We Are Family” Pirates won 98 games, swept the Reds in the NLCS and once more defeated Baltimore in the World Series to become world champions. Stennett appeared in one game in the NLCS as a defensive replacement at second and made one pinch-hit appearance in the World Series. He singled in Game One off Mike Flanagan.
After the 1979 postseason, Stennett was allowed to leave via free agency and signed a 5-year, $3 million contract with the Giants. It wasn’t a happy parting either, at least on Stennett’s part. He felt like the team had forgotten him after his years with the team. After spending much of the previous season on the bench, he was looking forward to starting again at second base. Unfortunately, Stennett played in 120 games and batted .244 in 1980, with 2 home runs and 37 RBIs. He had a bad relationship with manager Dave Bristol and was frequently benched for extended periods. Stennett’s 1981 season under new manager Frank Robinson wasn’t much better. He hit .230 in just 38 games as a backup to Joe Morgan at second base. By August, he was demanding to be released. The Giants gave him what he wanted and released him at the end of spring training in 1982. He finished his playing career with a season in Mexico in 1982 and one in the Montreal Expos’ minor leagues in 1983. He hit over .300 for the AA Wichita Aeros in ’83, but when the Expos acquired Manny Trillo in a trade, Stennett knew that he was not in Montreal’s plans. He asked for and received his release.
Stennett played in the majors for a total of 11 seasons. He had a slash line of .274/.306/.359 and an OPS+ of 86. He had 1,239 hits in his career, with 177 doubles, 41 triples and 41 home runs. He scored 500 runs and knocked in 432. He had an above-average fielding percentage of .978 in his career.
Stennett received a considerable amount of negative press in the last few seasons of his career, and the early version of free agency played a major role. Stennett was one of several free agents who did not, in the eyes of the press, live up to their contracts. The fact that Stennett was learning to play with a tender ankle, or the fact that he never really had a chance to play regularly with the Giants, didn’t matter. Stennett hit .242 in San Francisco, and that was all that mattered.
“I didn’t realize the money business,” Stennett said in 1983. “I didn’t realize everyone would be so conscious of it… I needed a chance to play myself back. I needed time to learn how to do different things because of my ankle, but the managers resented the money I got. I never did anything to them, but they resented me, especially Robinson. I wanted to prove I was worth it, but you can’t do it in one year.
“I wasn’t as bad as they made me seem. It’s the money that makes you seem so terrible,” he added.
If San Francisco didn’t appreciate him, Pittsburgh still did. Stennett was a regular attendee at Old-Timers’ games, and he even signed a minor-league contract with the Bucs in 1989 in an attempt to make a comeback at 37 (or 39, in reality). It didn’t amount to anything, but Stennett remained involved in baseball in his home of Florida. He coached at youth camps. He also took part in many Pirates reunions and meet-and-greets. He also attended many little league games as a proud grandfather. His grandson, Rolando, used to play for the Pirates, too — the South Florida Pirates.