Obituary: Bill Sudakis (1946-2021)

RIP to Bill Sudakis, who was a starting third baseman for the Dodgers as part of an 8-year major-league career. He died on September 15 at the age of 75. Sudakis played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1968-71), New York Mets (1972), Texas Rangers (1973), New York Yankees (1974), California Angels (1975) and Cleveland Indians (1975).

William Paul Sudakis was born in Joliet, Ill., on March 27, 1946. While attending Joliet Township High School, he participated in a Colt World Series tournament in 1961. He pitched for the Joliet All-Stars when he wasn’t playing third base, and he threw a 3-hitter in a 10-1 championship victory over a team from Rancho, Calif. Sudakis picked up two wins and struck out 24 batters along the way, and he was named to the tournament All-Star team. He also homered a couple of times as a third baseman. He threw a no-hitter in the regionals of the 1962 Colt Tournament, but Joliet was unable to repeat.

Already topping 6 feet tall in high school, Sudakis also played basketball for Joliet Township. However, his biggest strength was his pitching. He threw a perfect game in 1963 and another no-hitter in 1964. Despite all the success on the mount, baseball scouts were especially intrigued by his switch-hitting and his ability to play pretty much any position on the field. After graduating, he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who made him an infielder. In fact, the only time Sudakis saw the mound in his professional baseball career was one game in 1968 for Albuquerque — he gave up 3 earned runs in 1/3 of an inning.

In his first couple of years in the Dodgers low minors, Sudakis didn’t hit or field particularly well. In 1966, however, he clubbed 23 home runs for Class-A Santa Barbara while batting .264. He also played all over the infield, playing at shortstop, second base and third base. After impressing in the Arizona Instructional League with a .357 batting average that fall, Sudakis was moved to the AA Albuquerque Dodgers of the Texas League starting in 1967.

Sudakis spent two seasons with Albuquerque, bolstering his reputation as a solid offensive threat. He hit .293 in 1967 and .294 in ’68, adding 16 homers and 75 RBIs in the latter season. In his offseasons, Sudakis made use of his journalism degree from Joliet Junior College and began writing columns for the Joliet Herald News. The budding journalism career came to an end when the Dodgers promoted him to the majors in September of 1968. Los Angeles was fighting to stay out of last place at the time and handed the starting third base job to Sudakis to close out the final month of the season. He made his debut on September 3 in Philadelphia. He was 1-for-4 with a walk off Phillies starter Grant Jackson and a home run off reliever Dick Hall. Just a few days later, he hit a grand slam against the Cardinals in a 10-1 win.

Source: The Independent, June 15, 1970.

“My life would never be complete if I didn’t play in the major leagues,” Sudakis said after the slam. The Dodgers finished with a strong September to avoid the cellar, and Sudakis was a big contributor. In 24 games, he slashed .276/.382/.471 for an .854 OPS. He homered 3 times and drove in 12 runs. He want into 1969 as the team’s starting third baseman, and he was part of a group of young, stylish players dubbed the Mod Squad. The group included veteran Wes Parker and rookies Ted Sizemore, Bill Russell, Billy Grabarkewitz and Sudakis, to name a few of the youngsters who were supposed to lift the Dodgers out of the doldrums. The team moved up to fourth place, but it would be the next crop of prospects (Garvey, Yeager, Buckner, etc.) to really get the Dodgers to that next level. Sudakis, for his part, hit 14 homers and drove in a career-high 53 runs while playing average defense at third base, but he hit only .234. He homered in four consecutive games during one stretch, and no other Dodgers rookie matched the feat until Joc Pederson in 2015.

If the offseason, Sudakis went back to the Instructional League to work on his defense — as a catcher. It was an idea that Tommy Lasorda had in Arizona, and the versatile ballplayer went along with it. “First time I got back there I liked it,” he said. “I caught out there for two weeks and I’ve liked the idea ever since.”

While Dodgers manager Walt Alston was skeptical of the move, others on the staff thought Sudakis had the makeup, if not the experience, to be a catcher. “Bill is the most aggressive and gutty player I’ve ever played with or against. I’ve never seen a guy with more guts,” said Roger Craig, his Albuquerque manager. Sudakis, when asked about his aggressiveness, said, “Well, let’s say I play every game like it’s my last.”

Sudakis never really had a chance to take the starting catcher role away from veteran Tom Haller in 1970. He broke his ring finger in an exhibition game during spring training and was out of action for a time. Haller won the starting job, and Sudakis was made a role-player, spending time as a pinch-hitter, catcher, corner infielder and left fielder. He did well when he played, with a .264 batting average and 14 homers (second-most on the team), but he appeared in just 94 games. At one point, Sudakis made a “play me or trade me” request, and after he missed much of 1971 with a knee injury, and Dodgers placed him on waivers, ending his stay with the team.

Sudakis was claimed by the Mets in 1972 and split the season between New York and their minor-league affiliate in Memphis. He failed to hit above .200 at either place, and the severity of his knee injury probably had a lot to do with it. He had been trying to score in a game on June 6, 1971, and when he saw Mets catcher Duffy Dyer get the ball in plenty of time to tag him out, Sudakis decided to try and knock the ball out of Dyer’s hands. At the last second, Dyer dodged the collision, and Sudakis tumbled across the plate. “All my weight came down on the knee. I just couldn’t stop,” he explained. As a result, he tore his posterior cruciate ligament and damaged his cartilage. Dr. Frank Jobe had to rebuild the knee, and Sudakis missed all of spring training. The Mets had hoped for a quick turnaround, but Sudakis obviously needed more recovery time than the team was willing to give him.

The Mets traded Sudakis to the Texas Rangers in March of 1973 for infielder-outfielder Bill McNulty. Seemingly healthy again, he homered 15 times in a reserve role and batted .255. Aside from outfielder Jeff Burroughs, he was the only power source on the team, and manager Whitey Herzog played him at all the corner infield and corner outfield positions and used him as the DH.

During his time in the majors, Sudakis had kept up his aggressive attitude. He was also thought of as a free-spirit who earned the nickname of “Sudsy” or “Suds” because he liked to drink with his teammates. But there was an edge to him. “He liked to project a macho image. He liked being the center of attention,” said Rangers teammate Tom Grieve. “But he was loyal.”

The Yankees purchased his contract in December of 1973, and his hard edge created headlines for the wrong reasons. On the field, he batted .232 with 7 home runs and 39 RBIs in 1974. Off the field… on September 29, the Yankees played a day game in Cleveland to finish a three-game series. Rather than take a charter flight to Milwaukee, the team was booked on a commercial flight — there was an energy crisis in 1974, and MLB teams traveled partially on commercial flights to save fuel. The flight was delayed for a couple of hours, reported Daily News columnist Dick Young, and some of the players spent the downtime in the Cleveland airport bar. Along the way, Sudakis and backup catcher Rick Dempsey started sniping at each other, and when the players reached the Hotel Pfister in Milwaukee, the two started throwing punches (and furniture, according to some reports). It took most of the team to separate them, and it was initially thought of as no big deal. “It’s a long season and the pennant race is tense. Things like this happen on every club,” Sudakis said.

Source: The Waxahachie Daily Light, January 7, 1977.

The real casualty of the fight was outfielder Bobby Murcer, who broke his finger trying to pull them apart and missed the last two games of the season. The Yankees ended up in second place, 2 games behind Baltimore, after splitting their 2-game series in Milwaukee. The Yankees traded Sudakis to the Angels that December for pitcher Skip Lockwood.

Oddly enough, the team that won the 1974 World Series was the Oakland A’s, who frequently feuded with each other. Outfielders Reggie Jackson and Bill North even got into a fistfight in the clubhouse. The two men later collided in the outfield and were knocked senseless trying to catch a double — that had been hit by Yankees pinch-hitter Sudakis. “I understand they’ve been trying to keep those two guys apart,” he joked. “They may not be the best of friends but, on the field, they’re teammates. They’re professionals. I don’t think they’ve let that bother them.”

Sudakis was released by the Angels in June of 1975 after batting .121 in 30 games. He was quickly signed by Cleveland and hit a little better, with a .196 mark in 20 games. He was released in August of that year. After failing to land a spot with the Rangers in spring training in 1976, he signed a minor-league contract with the Kansas City Royals and spent a year in their minor-league system before retiring from the game.

Sudakis briefly tried out in the Professional Bowlers Association after retirement. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 19, 1987.

In 8 seasons, Sudakis had a slash line of .234/.311/.393. He had 362 hits that included 56 doubles, 7 triples and 59 home runs. He drove in 214 runs and scored 177 times. He played in 217 games at third base, 83 at catcher, 80 at first base, 61 as a designated hitter and 6 games in the outfield. Third base was his best position, but he had a career fielding percentage of .989 behind the plate. He threw out just 18% of baserunners, but most of that came in his first year behind the plate, when he caught 2 of 32 runners. With more time and without all the injuries, Sudakis could have made the conversion to catcher.

After his baseball career, Sudakis tried out for the Professional Bowlers Association tour but never advanced in a tournament. He held several jobs both in Texas and California, where he and his family moved in the late 1970s. In 1985, he and a business associate were arrested in a home in Huntington Beach, Calif., by undercover police. They were in possession of $200,000 worth of cocaine, and Sudakis also had a handgun with him. The case was supposed to go to trial in 1987, but I’ve been unable to find a result. But by the 1990s, Sudakis had become a coach for youth teams in California and and managed the independent Palm Springs Suns. He later became the baseball director of the Palm Springs Police Activities League. While interviews with him didn’t touch on the sensitive parts of his past, it seemed like he had found peace with his role in baseball.

“You have to get these kids to learn not to get too high with the highs or too low with the lows,” he said in 1995. “That was the hardest thing for me when I was playing, too… the most rewarding part is when you see someone who’s been struggling with something — hitting, defense, whatever — and it comes together for him.”

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