Obituary: Larry Biittner (1946-2022)

RIP to Larry Biittner, a versatile first baseman-outfielder and one of the best pinch-hitters of his era. His family announced that he died at 6:00am on January 2, after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 75 years old. Biittner played for the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers (1970-73, 1983), Montreal Expos (1974-76), Chicago Cubs (1976-80) and Cincinnati Reds (1981-82).

Lawrence David Biittner was born in Pocahontas, Iowa, on July 27, 1946. According to his SABR biography, that last name that would become the bane of sports editors came from Bavaria and was originally Büttner. He attended Pocahontas Catholic High School and was an outstanding basketball player. He contributed 23 points when the team knocked off Bancroft St. John on January 23, 1963, to win the Sioux City diocese high school basketball tournament. Later that December, he scored 34 points with 33 rebounds in another win. He was named to the All-State second team for basketball in his senior year of 1964.

Biittner, who was nearly 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds as a high school junior, was also a fierce southpaw pitcher. He was the best pitcher and the best hitter in the Central Iowa semipro circuit. He was 8-0 with a 1.09 ERA in 1966, with 127 strikeouts in 58 innings. He also hit .442 as a batter. After getting a scholarship to play basketball at Drake University, Biittner switched to Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, to focus on baseball. While playing for Buena Vista in 1967, he threw a 2-hitter against Dubuque in the first game of a doubleheader — with 11 strikeouts — and then scored 5 runs and drove in 3 in the nightcap to complete the sweep. He was a home run shy of the cycle in that game.

By the time Biittner was a college senior in 1968, he had already turned down several offers to turn pro. It was believed he could make it in baseball either as a pitcher or a first baseman. He ended his college career with a bang, helping Buena Vista reach the NAIA World Series in 1968. The Washington Senators took him in the Tenth Round of the 1968 Amateur Draft and decided to make him a full-time hitter. He started with Washington’s Double-A affiliate, the Savannah Senators of the Southern League. After a couple of partial seasons, Biittner got a chance to play full-time in 1970 with Pittsfield of the Eastern League. He batted .325 with 9 home runs and 62 RBIs. He would have finished second in the league’s batting title race, thousandths of a percentage point behind Greg Luzinski, but he lacked the necessary amount of at-bats to qualify for the title. Nevertheless, he was given his first taste of the major leagues when the Senators called him briefly in July. He went hitless in 2 pinch-hit at-bats.

After starting the 1971 season back in the minors, Biittner was recalled to Washington in May and wasted no time in getting his first major-league hit. He singled leading off the ninth inning as a pinch-hitter off Cleveland’s Vance Colbert on May 18. He became one of manager Ted Williams’ primary pinch hitters, and he also saw time at first base and both corner outfield spots. He hit .368 as a pinch-hitter and slashed .257/.323/.292 overall in 66 games. He was one of a host of players Williams tried out in right field and committed 5 errors in 38 games, failing to lock down the position for his own.

The Senators became the Texas Rangers starting in 1972 and lost 100 games in their new home. Biittner played in 137 games, which was second only to Dave Nelson on the team, but he never had a set position. He spent about half his time at first base and the rest playing any of the three outfield spots or coming off the bench to pinch-hit. He batted .259 and hit the first home run of his major-league career off California’s Lloyd Allen in a 7-3 win on June 30. But Biittner didn’t appreciate the way he was used and let people know about it. “I think to a certain degree platooning has contributed to our downfall,” he said in August. “Most good clubs have a set lineup. When you come to the ballpark you know whether you will play based on the way you’ve been performing. Here you have no idea.”

Williams was replaced as manager at the end of the season, but whoever the Rangers manager was in 1973 — Whitey Herzog, Del Wilber and Billy Martin all held the role, Biittner was relegated to the position of a role player. As a left-handed hitter, he sometimes struggled against lefties, and the stigma of being half of a platoon stuck with him. He appeared in 83 games and batted .252 — his third straight season in the .250s. The Rangers reduced their reliance on platoons somewhat, but Biittner couldn’t find much time playing in right field, as Jeff Burroughs was the team’s only consistent power threat. Instead, he played a little in left and right field and a little at first base once more.

Over the offseason, Biittner was traded to the Montreal Expos for pitcher Pat Jarvis. The change of scenery didn’t help him, as the Expos had Ron Fairly, Hal Breeden and Mike Jorgensen at first base and Ken Singleton ensconced in right field. Biittner began 1974 in Triple-A Memphis and hit .327 there before Montreal brought him back to the majors. He appeared in just 18 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, and had 7 hits for a .269 average.

Then in 1975, Biittner had a chance to play again, spending the entire season as an outfielder. He still had to find time where he could get it, because the Expos had a host of outfielders — most notably Rookie of the Year runner-up, All-Star and part-time catcher Gary Garter. Still, he got into 121 games and had a slash line of .315/.376/.408, setting career highs for batting average and on-base percentage. He struck out just 33 times in 384 plate appearances. He also set a career mark with 5 triples, including one that drove in the go-ahead runs in an 11-inning, 5-3 win over the Cubs on September 27. The Expos were ahead by a run when Chicago’s Andre Thornton hit his 18th and final home run of the season to tie the game. It would have tied Jorgensen for the Expos’ team lead had he been with Montreal instead of Chicago.

Source: Baseball Hall of Fame

Biittner and Thornton would cross paths again in 1976. On May 17, Biittner and starting pitcher Steve Renko were sent to Chicago in a trade that brought Thornton to the Expos. It was more than just a change of scenery for Biittner. In his time with Montreal, he was strictly an outfielder. Chicago, though, needed a first baseman more than they needed a corner outfielder, so he once again had to make use of all his fielding gloves.

The worst part of being a member of the Chicago Cubs during the 1970s is, well, they were the Cubs. They actually weren’t an awful team for most of Biittner’s tenure. They were generally an average team and occasionally quite good, but they were never a threat to contend once September rolled around. But the bright side was that if you were a player like Larry Biittner — someone with talent but never an opportunity to display it full-time — then you might stick in the starting lineup. Almost half of Biittner’s plate appearances in the major leagues came during this stint with the Cubs.

Biittner batted .245 for Chicago following his trade from Montreal. In 1977, he bounced back and forth from first base to left field, but he set career marks with 138 games played and 532 plate appearances. He also had his best offensive season, with a .298 batting average and personal bests in doubles (28), home runs (12), runs scored (74), RBIs (62) and slugging percentage (.432). He hit two of the Cubs’ seven home runs in a 23-6 slaughter of the San Diego Padres on May 17. One of them was part of a back-to-back series of homers that included blasts by Jerry Morales and Bobby Murcer. His expanded playing time came after an early-season injury to veteran outfielder Jose Cardenal. Biittner hit so well in the interim that manager Herman Franks just couldn’t bench him again. He was part of a potent lineup that saw the Cubs in first place for all of June and July before collapsing to an 81-81 record.

There was one other game that was significant for Biittner in 1977, and it wasn’t because of his work at the plate. He made his professional pitching debut at Wrigley Field in the first game of a July 4 doubleheader against the Expos. With the Cubs losing 11-2 in a stretch that saw them playing nine games in seven days, Biittner was asked to pitch the final 1-1/3 innings to save a weary pitching staff. He immediately gave up a 3-run homer to Larry Parrish (with two of the runs charged to reliever Jim Todd) in the eighth inning and then a 2-run homer and 3-run homer to Ellis Valentine and Andre Dawson in the ninth inning. Biittner did pick up 3 strikeouts and a warning from home plate umpire Terry Tata when he threw too closely to Del Unser. Manager Franks argued about that warning so much that he was ejected from the game.

“Yes, I was surprised, but I’ll do it again if they want me to,” Biittner said of his unexpected relief work. It wasn’t his first time pitching for the Cubs. He threw three innings in an exhibition game against Wichita in May of 1976, which apparently qualified Biittner as a “certified” pitcher and thus made him eligible to pitch for the Cubs. (Rules regarding position players pitching have apparently been loosened considerably since 1977.) When asked what his best pitch was, Biittner answered, “The home run ball.”

Biittner’s playing time decreased somewhat in 1978. He frequently filled in at first base for an injury-prone Bill Buckner, but he was moved back into a reserve role. Biittner continued to play in excess of 100 games each season, but he never reached the level of full-time player. He remained a valuable pinch-hitter and reserve player, driving in 50 runs in both 1978 and ’79. He hit .290 in 1979 as well. In his five seasons with the team, Biittner was a .273 hitter. He inadvertently became a symbol of Cubs futility when he lost a fly ball in his hat in 1979. He made a diving catch in left field to try and snag a Bruce Boisclair line drive, trapping the ball and losing his cap. When he got up, the ball was nowhere in sight. Frantically, he looked everywhere until he grabbed his cap, found the ball and threw out Boisclair at third base. He later said he knew the ball was under his cap “when I couldn’t find it anywhere else.”

After the 1980 season had concluded, Biittner became a free agent after contract extension talks with the Cubs broke down. In January of 1981, he became the first free agent ever signed by the Cincinnati Reds, accepting a 3-year deal. It took five years for the Reds to finally dip a toe in the free agent market. He was happy for the change. “With the Cubs, the goal was, hopefully, to finish the season at .500. Here, it’s to win. You can see the difference in the way these guys play,” Biittner said.

Source: Corpus Christi Times, April 18, 1983.

Reds president said that the need for bench depth pushed the Reds into free agency, and Biittner was one of the most valuable role-players on the market. Biittner understood his role, knowing that he wasn’t going to knock players like George Foster, Ken Griffey or Dan Driessen out of the lineup. “You can’t win a pennant on any regulars alone. You’ve got to give those guys a rest,” he said. “Also, you are not going to stay away from injuries. I know I can be a valuable asset to this club.”

In the strike-disrupted 1981 season, Biittner appeared in just 42 games and had a .213 batting average. However, he hit .310 in 1982 with his first 2 Cincinnati home runs and 24 runs driven in. He was released at the end of the season and signed with his original team, the Texas Rangers. He batted .276 in 1983 but saw little action in the second half of the season. He was released at the end of the year. The 36-year-old Biittner elected to retire.

In 14 seasons in the major leagues, Biittner had a slash line of .273/.324/.359. He had 861 hits, including 144 doubles, 20 triples and 29 home runs — over .40% of them in his 1977 season with the Cubs. He scored 310 runs and drove in 354. Baseball Reference lists him with 96 pinch-hits and a lifetime .257 batting average as a pinch-hitter — an excellent mark for a very difficult job. He was among the Top 10 all-time in pinch hits at the time of his retirement.

“I would have liked to have played every day,” he said in 1984, “but you have to make the most of what you get.”

Biittner is a member of the Buena Vista University Sports Hall of Fame and the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. His SABR bio notes that in his retirement, he worked in Chicago as a commodity trader before moving back to Pocahontas as the co-owner of a farm with an ex-brother-in-law. He had two sons from a former marriage.

For more information: Des Moines Register


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