RIP to Gordon “Gordie” Windhorn, who played in the major leagues as an outfielder for parts of three seasons in the 1950s and ’60s. He died on May 21 in Danville, Va., at the age of 88. Windhorn played for the New York Yankees (1959), Los Angeles Dodgers (1961), Kansas City Athletics (1962) and Los Angeles Angels (1962). He also had an extensive career in Japan, playing for the Hankyu Braves from 1964 to 1969.
Gordon Ray Windhorn was born in Watseka, Ill,, on December 19, 1933. The family moved to Arizona, and he went to high school at North Phoenix High. When it came to athletics, Windhorn made the biggest splash on the track team in school. North won the state track tournament in December of 1951, which was held at Arizona University. He won both the hurdles and broad jump events at the championship and averaged 17 points a track meet as a senior. He enrolled at Arizona State, but before he could very far in his college education, he decided to go to a tryout camp for the New York Giants in January 1952, to support a friend. Over the course of the two-day event, he got 3 hits in 4 at-bats and stole 7 bases. His performance impressed West Coast scout Dutch Reuther and Los Angeles-area scout Evo Pusich.
“He has all the potentialities in the world,” Reuther said when the team signed him. “”It’s a question of bringing them out. He can run, throw and field well. He’ll have to do a little work on batting.”
Just how much baseball training Windhorn had at the time is debatable. At the time of his signing, the Arizona Republic reported that he had played Legion baseball since he was 10 years old and was a pitcher and corner infielder in high school. Later stories reported that the closest he had ever come to baseball before the tryout was playing church league softball. As Herb Washington would later prove with the Oakland A’s, being a track star doesn’t necessarily imbue you with baseball skills. Given Windhorn’s immediate success in the minors, I think it’s likely that he had some baseball experience before that fateful tryout.
Windhorn reported to the Giants in the spring of 1952. The team decided to make him to an outfielder to take better advantage of his speed. He spent most of the season with Class-D Oshkosh and was named to the Wisconsin State League All-Star Team. He finished with a .292 batting average for the team. He moved to the Phoenix Senators of the Arizona-Texas League in 1953 and hit .318 with 15 home runs. He also stole 31 bases, which was a career high for him. Though stolen bases were never a big part of his game, he continued to hit wherever the Giants sent him. And in August of 1955, they sent him from the Oklahoma City Indians to the Red Sox farm club in Louisville. Boston purchased his contract and, after the 1956 training camp, sent him to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, along with several other prospects. Some took it better than others. Jerry Casale was said to be particularly upset, but Windhorn took the move in stride. “If I never make the big leagues, I’ve been a teammate of Ted Williams and I’ve met Stan Musial and I’ve played against the Yankees. Not bad for a trackman, sir,” he told manager Joe Cronin..
Windhorn batted .307 with the Seals, with 8 home runs and 45 RBIs. His stolen base totals dropped to 13, which was still good enough to lead the team and finish in the Top 10 of the PCL. In March, the New York Yankees traded Bill Renna to the Seals in exchange for Windhorn and pitcher Eli Grba. He was assigned to Richmond of the International League and homered in his first at-bat — one of 10 he hit on the year. The Yankees moved him between Richmond, where he struggled, and Denver, where he excelled. But he never got an invite to the Yankees spring training camp until he wrote a letter to Yankees manager Casey Stengel in 1959, asking for a chance. “I don’t understand, Mr. Stengel, why I haven’t been invited to spring training after having led the league in hitting,” he wrote in early 1959 — and he had hit .328 for Denver in 1958. “Since I am still young, I feel that it would be wiser for me to quit the game if I don’t get a chance to make the Yankees this year. You can’t make money in the minors, I can’t make the majors if I don’t have the chance.”
The Yankees gave Windhorn that chance, and he batted .348 in spring training while being voted the camp’s outstanding rookie… but was still sent to the minors. Windhorn was poised to follow through on his threat to quit but was persuaded to return to Denver, where he again hit well before the Yankees brought him to the majors that September.
Windhorn made his major-league debut against Kansas City on September 10, 1959. He was put in left field in the top of the eighth inning and caught a Joe Morgan (the other Joe Morgan) fly ball. He didn’t bat as the Yankees and Ralph Terry cruised to a 12-1 win. He appeared in 7 games as a pinch-hitter and left fielder, going hitless in 11 at-bats, with 3 strikeouts.
The Yankees traded Windhorn to the Los Angeles Dodgers in April of 1960 for pitcher Fred Kipp. Assigned to the Montreal Royals, he batted .280 with 8 home runs before abruptly retiring at the end of June. He was 26 years old, and he and his wife, Doris, were new parents of a son, Steven. He decided to retire to Danville and manage a bowling alley.
Baseball’s pull is strong, and Windhorn returned to the Dodgers organization in 1961, playing for Omaha of the American Association. He again reached the big leagues in early June when the Dodgers needed a pinch-hitter and outfielder on the roster. He was given a start against the Chicago Cubs on June 21 and got his first major-league hit, a bases-loaded double off Dick Ellsworth that ended up being the difference in a 4-1 win. But his opportunities to play were rather slim. Even so, he became a hero in Los Angeles on September 11 against the Philadelphia Phillies when he led off the eleventh inning with a pinch-homer off Don Ferrarese for a 6-5 win. Not only did the homer keep the Dodgers pennant hopes alive, but it spoiled a brilliant relief outing by Ferrarese, who had thrown 7 hitless innings to that point. It was Windhorn’s first major-league home run, and even more incredibly, he called the shot. Before he left the dugout, he told infielder Darryl Spencer, “I’m going to hit this one out of here and win this game.” The very next day, he got the start against the Phillies and had 3 more hits, including a triple and home run off Chris Short. In 34 games, he hit .242 and slugged .545, thanks to 2 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs among his 8 hits.
Dodgers manager Walt Alston lauded Windhorn’s character. “He’s one of the most willing guys on the ball club. He’s got more life on the bench than fellows who are playing regularly. He’s willing to do anything for you. He even pitches batting practice.”
After the season, the Dodgers traded Windhorn and a minor-leaguer to the Kansas City A’s for Stan Johnson, Bobby Prescott and Jay Ward. He appeared in 14 games with Kansas City in 1962, with 3 hits in 19 at-bats for a .158 average. On May 12, he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for infielder Jim Coughtry. He saw the most action of his career, playing in 40 games for the Angels in all three outfield spots. He batted .178, and he suffered an unwelcome return to Dodger Stadium, where the Angels played their home games. He was put into the game on July 12 against the Yankees to act as a defensive replacement in left field. It was a 5-0 game at the time, but the Yankees scored twice when Bobby Richardson hit a long fly ball to left field. Windhorn tried to track it down but found himself in a mud pit in left field. His feet flew out from under him, and Richardson’s ball sailed over his head for a 2-run double. The Angels held on to win 5-4, and Windhorn explained the fall after the game: “Where I was standing at the start of the play, the ground was hard as concrete. Then I moved a few feet and all of a sudden I was running in mud. I think there’s a sprinkler out there that’s been leaking. I never saw an outfield that bad in Triple-A ball. In fact, I never saw a high school field that bad.”
He wasn’t the only outfielder to complain. Earl Averill, the player Windhorn replaced in left field, said running after a fly ball was “like running off a tennis court into the Okefenokee Swamp.”
The Angels sent Windhorn to Triple-A Portland of the PCL later that July. That brought about the end of his major-league career, but not his pro career. He started the 1963 season with the Hawaii Islanders and was traded to the San Diego Padres (both teams were in the PCL) for infielder Ron Samford. After the season, he bought out his own contract to sign with the Hankyu Braves of the Japan Pacific League, and he spent six seasons with the team. When Windhorn first joined the team, he wasn’t the big slugger — former Dodgers teammate Darryl Spencer hit 36 homers in 1964 — but he managed 19 long balls, though his batting average was just .231. His production increased over the next few seasons, as did his popularity — he was known for carrying candy in his pockets to throw to children in the stands. His best season with the Braves came in 1967 when he hit .285 with 21 doubles, 25 home runs and 60 RBIs. He retired after the 1969 season, when age and declining production moved him into a part-time role. The Braves lost to the Tokyo Giants in the Japanese championship series, and Windhorn homered twice in the series. He was carted off the field on a stretcher after slamming into a wall in what proved to be his final game. “What a way to go,” he later joked.
In parts of 3 seasons in the majors, Windhorn slashed .176/.252/.333, with 19 hits in 95 games. He had 9 doubles, 1 triple and 2 homers, driving in 8 runs and scoring 20 times. In Japan, he slashed .255/.306/.439 with 86 home runs and 217 RBIs. He also batted .291 across 12 seasons in the minors. If you added all that time plus a season in Dominican winter ball together, Windhorn retired with 1,812 hits and 187 home runs, to go with a .279 batting average.
By the time he had retired from the Braves, his children, Steve and Sally, had learned to speak Japanese fluently, and his wife Doris had become friends with the wives of many of the other American ballplayers. While he initially came to Japan so that Spencer wouldn’t be the only American on the team, Windhorn spoke glowingly of his time there. “The best investment I have ever made in my life was when I bought my own contract from the Cincinnati Reds and came to Japan to play ball in 1964… It is a fantastic experience to come half way around the world and do something you like to do — playing baseball. And it is educational at the same time to be in a foreign country and to learn something about the people and their customs.”
Windhorn joined the California Angels in 1970 as a scout, covering the mid-Atlantic states, for a time. He was an active golfer in Virginia and a booster of local sports. He is survived by his wife Doris, his two children and their families.
For more information: Norris Funeral Services