RIP to Ethan Blackaby, who played briefly for the Milwaukee Braves in 1962 and 1964. He died on January 16 at the age of 81. No information about his passing has been made available as of this writing, but former pitcher John D’Acquisto said in a Facebook post that Blackaby has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to his time as an outfielder, Blackaby was also an award-winning general manager in the San Francisco Giants organization.
Ethan Allen Blackaby was born in Cincinnati on July 24, 1940. He came from an athletic family; his father, Inmon Blackaby, was a football player at Butler University and played three seasons (1938-40) for the Cincinnati Bengals of the American Football League. Ethan attended Canton High School in Canton, Ill., and he gained most of his athletic acclaim as a wide receiver and kicker on the football team. When he graduated high school in 1958, he went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. By his sophomore year of 1959, he was a starting halfback and scored the opening touchdown of a 14-6 win over Minnesota on a 19-yard run. In his junior season, he scored twice in a 35-14 win over Wisconsin, including one on an 88-yard punt return. One of his teammates in the Illini backfield was Gary Kolb, who would reach the major leagues himself as a catcher and outfielder. Blackaby’s baseball heroics were not given as much press, but they were equally impressive. The outfielder batted .436 in the spring of 1960 and earned Big Ten second-team honors. One of the other players on the team also made a name for himself in baseball — future Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo.
The Milwaukee Braves and scout Nick Kamzic signed Blackaby to a contract before any other MLB or NFL team could get him. He debuted in professional ball in 1961 with the Yakima Braves and Boise Braves, both of which were low-level minor league teams. Between the two teams, he put together a good first season, with a combined .272 batting average and 13 home runs. He spent the whole of 1962 with Yakima and finished in the Top 5 in batting with a .324 batting average, along with 43 doubles, 16 home runs, 108 runs scored and 75 RBIs. That September, the Braves brought Blackaby to the majors.
Minor-league call-ups worked much differently than they do now, particularly with the restrictions on roster sizes that have been introduced by Major League Baseball in recent years. In 1962, Milwaukee brought a whopping 14 prospects to the majors, from all parts of their minor-league organization. Mack Jones, Denis Menke and Mike Krsnich came from Triple-A Toronto; Wade Blasingame came from Double-A Austin, and Walt Hriniak joined Blackaby from Yakima. Arnold Umbach came up from Eau Claire, a Class-C team that was even a step down from Yakima. Not everybody actually played — Blasingame and Umbach would make their debuts a couple of years later. For them, traveling with the major-league team was a reward for a good year. But Blackaby was the first of the dozen-plus prospects to join the team and made his major-league debut as a pinch-hitter on September 6.
Manager Birdie Tebbets thought Blackaby was talented but a little too raw. He didn’t intend to use him as anything more than a pinch hitter, and with the team trailing St. Louis 6-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Blackaby pinch-hit for Bob Uecker against Ernie Broglio. The rookie promptly smacked a double to right field for his first hit in the majors. Tebbets let him start the next game against Philadelphia in center field, and he was 0-for-3 with 3 strikeouts against starting pitcher Dennis Bennett. Blackaby fanned in each of his next two pinch-hitting at-bats and then struck out in his first at-bat against Pittsburgh’s Bob Veale on September 28 — 6 consecutive strikeouts. Blackaby redeemed himself by breaking up Veale’s no-hitter in the seventh-inning with a single. On the year, Blackaby had 2 hits in 13 at-bats with 8 strikeouts.
Blackaby spent all of 1963 and most of ’64 with the Denver Bears of the Pacific Coast League. He slashed .279/.338/.454 in 1963, with 23 doubles, 11 triples and 18 homers. He impressed new Braves manager Bobby Bragan, who acknowledged that the outfielder needed work with his fielding and baserunning. “He has things to learn, but he looks like the type who will,” Bragan added.
Blackaby took a step backward in 1964, with a batting average that dipped into the .240s, but he still returned to Milwaukee for a late-season call-up. In 9 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, he had 1 hit in 12-at-bats but only had 2 strikeouts. The one hit was an RBI single off Pittsburgh hurler Tom Butters that scored his former Illini teammate Kolb. Blackaby did not return to the majors after that season.
In parts of two seasons with the Braves, Blackaby had a .120/.185/.160 slash line, with 3 hits, a walk and a run driven in. He made just 5 starts in the outfield, but he did have at least one start at all three outfield positions.
Blackaby moved around the minors through the 1969 season. In 1965, he started the year with the Atlanta Crackers but was sent to the Salt Lake City Bees of the Chicago Cubs organization in May. He also spent time back with the Braves, Angels, Astros, Tigers and Athletics, never making it back to the majors. In 1966, he was voted the most popular player of the Austin Braves after hitting .263. When he received his award in a pre-game ceremony, he said, “I’m sure there are other guys on the team who deserve this award as much as I do.” Then he paused and added, “But on second thought, maybe I did deserve it.” He later saved the game by chasing down a long fly ball to center field to preserve a 4-2 win over Amarillo.
Blackaby played for 13 minor-league teams over 9 seasons. He cracked a 2-run homer for Seattle in 1968 to bring a 16-inning pitchers’ duel to a 3-1 end, and he was welcomed to the Hawaii Islanders in 1969 by hitting a home run in his first at-bat with the team. His hitting steadily worsened, and he was used more and more often as a backup outfielder or pinch-hitter. He finished his minor-league career with a .260/.343/.425 slash line. with 185 doubles, 54 triples and 95 home runs.
Blackaby got a job as an insurance agent in Phoenix once he got out of baseball. He didn’t stay out for long, though. The Phoenix Giants, the Triple-A affiliate for San Francisco, changed ownership in October of 1973, and Blackaby, one of three new owners along with John Ashby and Dan Walker, was appointed as general manager.
“One night we were sitting around shooting the breeze and somehow or another the Phoenix Giants came up,” Blackaby said. “Somebody said we ought to see if we could buy them and how it might be sort of fun to run our own ballclub. We agreed to check it out and we found out, in fact, that the Giants were looking for new management.”
The Giants wanted local owners who would be devoted to the team and help boost sagging attendance. Phoenix’s former GM, 74-year-old baseball lifer Rosy Ryan, felt that promotion took away from the purity of baseball. The new trio took the exact opposite approach. They succeeded in bringing more fans to the stadium and worked more with local businesses. Toward the end of their first season, the Giants were close to topping their attendance record of 152,568 with ace pitcher John Montefusco pitching on a Saturday night. “We’re going to make it Montefusco Night,” Blackaby said. “Everybody with that last name gets in free… I checked the phone book, and there aren’t any.”
The Giants did beat their attendance record in 1974, and they did it again in 1975. Blackaby was named the Pacific Coast League Executive of the Year Award in 1974. (He was awarded it again in 1975, though another general manager reportedly finished first but wasn’t named through a tabulating error.) He also became one of the most stylish general managers in the whole of minor-league baseball, if his baseball cards from that era are any judge. The three-man ownership group, Professional Sports Inc., completed their three-year lease of Phoenix Giants at the end of 1976 and bought the club outright from San Francisco. They also got a radio station to broadcast home and road games for the first time since 1969.
To bring in attendance, Blackaby was willing to do almost anything — even climb into a boxing ring for a 3-round exhibition against local fighter Bad News Wallace. The ring was set up at home plate as part of the pre-game attractions. “Bad News didn’t hurt me,” he said later, “but only because he didn’t want to.”
It didn’t hurt that the Phoenix Giants usually had a good crop of young talent, including the likes of Jack Clark, Bob Knepper and Greg Minton. Phoenix won the PCL championship in 1977, which the franchise hadn’t done since the 1950s. Blackaby and his partners sold their interests to a new owner in 1978. He remained the general manager through several ownership changes, including an local group led by Colangelo in 1980. Through it all, the team’s owners had to deal with the potential of Major League Baseball expanding to Phoenix. There were some who doubted it would ever happen, but Blackaby was not one of them.
“Down the road Major League Baseball will take a serious look at Phoenix,” he said in a 1979 interview. “Phoenix is not an easy area to promote in. There are no major industries to hit. As the area grows, that could change.”
Blackaby resigned from the Giants in the fall of 1986 after another ownership change. He became part owner and general manager of the San Antonio Missions before his group sold the team in 1987. Blackaby remained involved in the minor leagues and also participated in multiple old-timers’ games with the rest of Arizona’s sizable retired ballplayer population. When Major League Baseball finally came to Phoenix with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he joined the team for a time in 1997 as a spring training coordinator.
Blackaby remained a source of Phoenix baseball history until very recently. In a 2014 article, he discussed how the Giants were able to play baseball in Arizona in an outdoor stadium. “The players didn’t seem to mind. They wanted to play,” he said. As for the fans, the team offered 10 cent beer nights to help fans stay cool, which worked — sometimes too well. “A couple of times after games it looked like we were having boxing matches,” he recalled.
Then there was Municipal Stadium’s attempt at air conditioning. Cold air was supposed to blow out from vents underneath the seats. “Well, the problem was they obviously didn’t have them on when the team wasn’t there,” he recalled. During those down times, the vents would become a home for leftover food and a small army of cockroaches. When the vents were turned back on, Blackaby said, “everything blew out into the open, including the cockroaches.”