RIP to Gene Clines, who was part of a world championship Pirates team during his 10-year playing career as an outfielder. He also had a substantial career as a major-league coach and remained in uniform into the 2000s. He died on January 27 at the age of 75. Clines played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1970-74), New York Mets (1975), Texas Rangers (1976) and Chicago Cubs (1977-79). He also coached for the Cubs, Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants.
Clines returned to Pittsburgh in 2021 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of baseball’s first all-minority lineup, which happened on September 1, 1971. Team president Travis Williams mourned Clines’ passing with a statement that read in part, “It was an honor to have Gene back in Pittsburgh this past September to recognize him and his teammates from our 1971 World Series Championship team who took the field as part of Major League Baseball’s first all-minority lineup. It was a joy to talk to him about his deep passion for baseball, his love for his teammates and his appreciation for the city of Pittsburgh. Our hearts go out to his wife Joanne, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Eugene Anthony Clines was born in San Pablo, Calif., on October 6, 1946. He attended Ells High School in Richmond, Calif., where he played football, track and baseball. In 1964, he was an honorable mention on the Alameda County Athletic League All-Star team as a third baseman. He was a first-team All-Star in his junior year of 1965 as a utility player. His pitching was good enough that he won Prep of the Week in May of 1965 after pitching the Ells Eagles to two 1-run wins and driving in the winning runs himself.
Clines was signed by the Pirates when he graduated from Ells in 1966. Though his pitching was celebrated, the Pirates tried him initially as a position player. After one season in the Appalachian League, they were proven correct. Clines led the Appy League in hitting with a .358 mark as a member of the Salem Rebels. He also stole 15 bases and was caught just 3 times. He was initially tried as a third baseman, and the Pirates kept working on his defense right up to the point that he was ready for the majors. Eventually he was made a full-time outfielder, and he never spent a single inning in the infield as a major leaguer.
Over the next couple of seasons, Clines’ hitting tailed off into the .240s, but the development continued. His strikeout totals peaked with 82 K’s with the York Pirates in 1968 but started lowering. His walk rate and on-base percentage started to improve, and his stolen base numbers remained high. Clines had an excellent campaign in 1969, when he hit .268 with 63 stolen bases, leading the Eastern League by more than 20 thefts. That team won the Eastern League Championships, and Clines was a catalyst for their success.
Clines hoped to reach the majors by 1970 — or at least advance to Triple-A. But he was instead sent back to the Eastern League with Waterbury. “Sure I was disappointed. I had played in that same league the year before, and I felt that I’d be moving up,” Clines said. He responded by batting .310 in 95 games. When Dave Cash of the Pirates was called away for a two-week tour of duty with the Army, Clines was promoted in an “emergency move,” as manager Danny Murtaugh explained it.
Clines was used mainly as a pinch-runner or pinch-hitter. His first at-bat on June 30 against the Mets resulted in his first major-league hit off Jerry Koosman. His second at-bat resulted in his second hit. “Well, I suppose if he goes something like 10-for-10, there’s the chance we might extend the emergency,” Murtaugh said. Aside from a brief demotion in the summer, Clines never saw the minors again.
Clines, who was inexperienced at pinch-hitting, nonetheless got enough hits to carry a ridiculous batting average of .538 into September. He finally gained actual playing time when Al Oliver was hit in the elbow by a pitch from Chris Short of the Phillies on September 17 and missed two games. Clines was 3-for-3 with a double in relief of Oliver and came inches from tying up the game — it took a strong throw from right fielder Scott Reid to nail him at the plate. Clines got 2 hits in his first start in right field the next day, though it dropped his batting average to .542. In 31 games in 1970 and 39 plate appearances, Clines had a .405 batting average. The Pirates finished first in the NL East but were swept in the NL Championship Series against Cincinnati.
Clines, unfortunately, was on a team that was loaded with talented outfielders — Willie Stargell, Matty Alou, Roberto Clemente and outfielder/first baseman Al Oliver. Pittsburgh spent the offseason fielding trade offers for Clines, including an offer from Cincinnati for sore-armed pitcher Jim Maloney. Instead, Alou was traded to St. Louis, Oliver moved into center field, and Clines spent 1971 as a valuable bat and glove off the bench. He hit .308 and clocked his first career home run on July 28 — a 3-run shot off the Dodgers’ Pete Mikkelsen that paved the way to an 8-5 win. By early August, he had four 4-hit games, which led the team. He likely would have received Rookie of the Year consideration, but with all the stars in the Pirates outfield, there was just not enough playing time available. The Pirates once against advanced to the NLCS, this time against San Francisco. Clines started the second game in center field and homered off Jim Barr in three trips to the plate. He was less successful in the World Series against Baltimore — a triple in 11 at-bats over three games — but the Pirates won in seven games to become World Champions.
Clines played a big part in that landmark September 1, 1971, game, which included Rennie Stennett, Clemente, Stargell, Manny Sanguillen, Cash, Oliver, Jackie Hernandez and Dock Ellis. As the starting center fielder, he had 6 putouts and 1 assist, and he was 2-for-5 at the plate with a double, a stolen base and 2 runs scored. According to a story on MLB.com, Clines overheard one of the batboys saying before the game that the Homestead Grays were playing. “That thought stayed in my mind, and didn’t dawn on me until they were playing the National Anthem,” he said. “I looked to my left and I saw Stargell and I looked to my right and I saw [Roberto] Clemente. I turned around and I started looking at all the positions. I said, ‘Now, I understand what the batboy said earlier that afternoon.'”
The Pirates remained a force in the NL East for the rest of the decade. Unfortunately, the outfield remained crowded, and Clines’ ability to come off the bench and play every outfield position left him stuck as a fourth outfielder. Stargell moved to first base in 1972, but Vic Davalillo hit over .300 at the replacement left fielder. Clemente was tragically killed on December 31, 1972, but Richie Zisk hit .324 as the starting right fielder in ’73. Clines played in 107 to 110 games from 1972 through 1974 and get over 300 plate appearances, but he never became an everyday starter. His best season with Pittsburgh was in 1972, when he slashed .334/.369/.421, with career highs in doubles (15), triples (6) and runs scored (52 — a number he reached three times in his career). His batting average was a point higher than NL batting title winner Billy Williams, but Clines had just 311 at-bats and didn’t qualify for the league lead. He did receive some down-ballot MVP votes in recognition for his strong season. After that, Cline’s hitting started to tail off, and young outfielders like Dave Parker started to make their major-league debuts. In his final season in Pittsburgh, Clines batted .225 with a .250 slugging percentage.
The wear of playing without a position took its toll on Clines, and he sought a trade to a club that could utilize him properly. “I’d like to go to an aggressive club,” he said in August of 1974. “It’s hard to run here with all the big hitters. Some guys are in the right place at the right time. Right now I’m in the wrong place.” The Pirates granted his wish by trading him to the New York Mets on October 22, 1974, in exchange for catcher Duffy Dyer. It went overlooked by baseball fans, because the Yankees and GIants announced their Bobby Murcer-for-Bobby Bonds deal on the same day.
The 1975 Mets had a starting outfield lineup of Rusty Staub, Del Unser and Dave Kingman. Clines wasn’t able to get the starting center field job over Unser in spring training and once again found himself as the utility outfielder. He actually played less with the Mets than he did with the Pirates, and his batting average remained low with .227. “I won’t be a happy player until I’m playing every day,” he said. He was finally given that chance when the Mets traded him to the Texas Rangers in December of 1975 for outfielder Joe Lovitto. Clines played in a career-best 116 games and had nearly 500 plate appearances. He also turned in a .276/.304/.316 slash line, with 16 walks and a total of 15 extra-base hits (12 doubles, 3 triples). Two of the doubles came against Cleveland on June 15, when starter Gaylord Perry moved into sixth place on the all-time strikeout list, surpassing Warren Spahn’s 2,583 whiffs. Clines also stole the show in the field, ending the game by chasing down a long fly ball by George Hendrick and slamming into the outfield wall in the process. He trotted off the field to an ovation as loud as what the crowd gave Perry.
Clines was shocked and disappointed to be traded again for the third straight winter in 1977. This time, he went to the Chicago Cubs as part of an earlier deal that had sent pitcher Darold Knowles to Texas. He was once again thrown into a crowded outfield mix that included Murcer, Jose Cardenal, Jerry Morales, Larry Biittner and Joe Wallis. Clines tried to make his case with the best spring training of his career, spurring manager Herman Franks to say, “I don’t see how we can keep Gene Clines’ bat out of the lineup.” Well, Franks found a way, as Clines appeared in a total of four games in April and asked for a trade.
“This situation is the toughest of all because of the kind of year I had last season,” Clines explained. “I had my most productive year with the Rangers. I proved that I was a clutch hitter… I’m part of a problem the Cubs created themselves. That have six bona fide outfielders and that’s more than they need. I’ve studied the situation and I realize that I’m just a victim of circumstance.”
No trade ever materialized, but Clines’ playing time did increase. He got into 101 games in 1977 and hit a career-high 3 home runs, including back-to-back games against San Diego on May 16 and 17. The May 17 game is one where the Cubs homered seven times in a 23-6 win, including back-to-back-to-back blasts by Biittner, Murcer and Morales. Clines hit well when given the opportunity to play and finished the season with a .293 average and a career-high 41 RBIs. The Cubs didn’t lessen their number of outfielders for 1978, and Clines batted .258 in his usual backup role. His 1979 season as an active player lasted 10 games. He was used exclusively as a pinch-hitter and had 2 hits in 10 at-bats. His last at-bat came on May 8, and he singled off the Reds’ Doug Bair. Three days later, the Cubs released him. He was immediately added to the coaching staff and spent the rest of the season as the bullpen coach. That began a coaching career that lasted more than twice as long as his playing career.
In 10 seasons, Clines had a slash line of .277/.329/.341. Not counting his first and last partial seasons, he averaged 104 games a season. Clines had a total of 645 hits, including 85 doubles, 24 triples and 5 home runs. He scored 314 runs and stole 71 bases — despite his speed in the minors, he never saw many green lights in the majors. He played 301 games in left field, 211 in center field and 135 in right field, and he was an above-average defender in left and center field.
It’s understandable that the Cubs were so quick to welcome Clines to the coaching staff. He’d been acting as an unofficial coach ever since he joined the team. Mike Krukow, in a 2002 editorial for the San Francisco Examiner, wrote about how he and many of the Cubs’ other young pitchers like Bruce Sutter, Willie Hernandez, Lee Smith and Dennis Lamp became followers of “Zen Clinism.” The veteran helped Krukow after the rookie pitcher entered the 1977 season pumped to be on the team and proceeded to get crushed in his first starts. “He taught me that you had to ‘stay the same.’ Be consistent mentally. Don’t get too high when the going was good and don’t get too low when the going got bad,” Krukow wrote. If Clines ever saw one of his students getting a little too full of themselves, he’d say, “You ain’t gonna make it.” It was a simple but effective lesson that Krukow passed on when he became a veteran presence on a young Giants team.
Clines spent three years with the Cubs as a bullpen and first base coach. After the 1981 season, he became a minor-league hitting instructor for the Houston Astros. He returned to the majors in 1988 as the Astros hitting coach and then continued to coach for Seattle, Milwaukee, San Francisco and back to the Cubs through 2006. He also spent several years in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization as a minor-league hitting coordinator and special advisor to player development.
Clines also played in Old-Timers games periodically and once hit a triple off Bob Feller. He also joined the Bradenton Explorers of the Senior Professional Baseball League, along with teammates Hal McRae, Al Oliver and Bruce Kison. He hit .328 as a center fielder, and he said the experience made him a better coach. “I didn’t embarrass myself. But I chased a few high fastballs. I made a few of the same mistakes I see our guys making. It put me in their place for a few months, and I can understand their frustrations a little better now. I’ll have more patience.”
Clines was a coach for some of the game’s all-time great sluggers, including Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa. The Mariners, in remembering Clines, noted that he was Griffey’s first major-league hitting coach and helped Edgar Martinez to the 1992 batting title. Clines had a couple of ways of getting Griffey to focus. He had a friend in Pittsburgh send him a Barry Bonds T-shirt that listed all of Bonds’ accolades. Clines knew that there was a rivalry between the two sluggers, so wore it whenever he needed to get his young superstar’s attention.
“He was funny,” Clines said of Griffey’s reaction. “He was mad and started hollering about ‘How could I do this?” and ‘Why didn’t I wear any of his T-shirts instead?’ But it worked.” The first time Clines wore the shirt into the Mariners’ locker room, Griffey had 5 hits in the game. Griffey later gave Clines a stack of his own shirts and repeatedly tried to steal the Bonds shirt. Griffey maintained that the shirt alone didn’t help him focus on his hitting — he had some 0-for games when his coach wore it, but he seemed to take the joke in stride.
“I got me a Gene Clines T-shirt now,” he joked.
For more information: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette