RIP to Costen Shockley, a first baseman who played in 51 games in the major leagues — though his proudest moment actually came on a little league field. He died on May 30 in Georgetown, Del., at the age of 80. According to an article from the Delaware News Journal, Shockley had been battling cancer and other health problems. Shockley played for the Philadelphia Phillies (1964) and California Angels (1965).
John Costen Shockley was born in Georgetown on February 8, 1942. He started making a name for himself in the Mid-Atlantic region as a lefthanded pitcher in a Delaware Pony League in the 1950s. He was a strikeout artist with good control, and when he wasn’t on the mound, he was playing first base. Even as a student at Georgetown High School, he was a pitcher first and a hitter second. Not that he wasn’t a bad hitter — he his over .600 in his high school career, with good power. But he also dominated on the mound, like the no-hitter he threw against Milton High in 1958, when he struck out 15 batters. He also played on the basketball and football teams in school and was a second team All-State basketball selection in 1959.
As he got closer to graduation, his baseball games drew more and more attention from scouts. But he didn’t make it easy as far as how he would be signed — as a pitcher or a hitter. He threw a 2-hit shutout against Milford High on April 13, 1960, and he also had 3 hits, including a 2-run homer. His father Chester, who became a construction engineer for the State Highway Department after an accident cost him three fingers and his own baseball career, said that each team who was interested in him would get one chance to write down their best offer on a sheet of paper. Then Costen would go into a room and make the decision himself.
“I will insist on only one thing,” Herman said. “This isn’t going to be an auction. One offer per club.”
Shockley graduated from high school on June 6, 1960, and he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and area scout Johnny Ogden about a month later for a reported $50,000 bonus. And despite the success he had as a pitcher, Ogden was adamant that the Phillies were signing him as a first baseman. “For his age, he is one of the finest hitters I’ve ever seen,” said the scout.
Due to an occurence of hepatitis, Shockley was under doctor’s orders to not play any baseball for the rest of the year. So he made his debut in the minors in 1961. The time away from baseball didn’t cause his skills to atrophy. He hit .360 with 31 doubles, 23 home runs and 108 RBIs for the Magic Valley Cowboys of the Class-C Pioneer League. In his first at-bat in his home Jaycee Park in Twin Falls, Idaho, he smashed a home run over the center field scoreboard. He was voted the league’s top rookie, and he missed out on a batting title by 1 point; Domingo Carrasquel (Chico’s brother) hit .361.
Shockley didn’t seem to miss pitching at all. “I like first base because it gives me a chance to play regularly,” he said. He also impressed his team with his determination. Once, before a game, he was hit in the face with a line drive during batting practice. Cowboys owner Ben Jewell drove Shockley to the hospital himself, where he got four stitches inside his mouth. “All the way out there and while we were there, he was asking what time it was. He hurried the doctor and we got back in time for infield practice,” Jewell said.
Each year, the Phillies moved Shockley to the next level of the minors, and each year, he was up to the challenge. His hitting was never an issue, but his fielding at first base was. Since he was playing as a full-time fielder for the first time, he had to work on his footwork and his reaction time. Those skills improved each year as well. “When Roy Sievers retires, Costen Shockley will take over for the Phillies. This kid will be a great hitter. He’s a natural — the kind that comes along only once in a great while,” enthused Phillies manager Gene Mauch.
Shockley’s average slipped to .282 in 1962 with Class-A Williamsport, but he recovered the following year with a .335 mark for the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Sally League. Once again, he fell percentage points shy of a batting title (Marv Staehle hit .337), but it put him in competition for the first base job for the Phillies in 1964. As it turned out, Sievers was just about at the end of his time with the Phillies — he was claimed by the Washington Senators in July. But Shockley played poorly in spring training and started the season in Triple-A Arkansas. There, he continued to hit for power and for average. When Sievers left the Phillies in July, Shockley was given his chance.
Shockley made his major-league debut against Cincinnati on July 17, 1964. He walked in his first at-bat against Reds’ starter Joey Jay and singled against Jay in the top of the seventh inning. He later scored on a Tony Taylor single as the go-ahead run, and the Phillies won the game 5-4. The next day, he hit his first major-league home run, off Cincinnati’s John Tsitouris. Shockley started all the games for the Phillies for the better part of a week but was sent back to Arkansas when his average dipped to .207. He returned in September to get a couple more hits, giving him a .229/.263/.314 slash line. His performance in Arkansas was spectacular — he hit .281 with 36 homers and 112 RBIs. But the bulk of the starts at first base in 1964 went to utility infielder/outfielder John Herrnstein.
Shockley was disappointed, but not too disappointed, when he learned that he had been traded to the California Angels on December 4, 1964. He and pitcher Rudy May were sent to the Angels in exchange for pitcher Bo Belinsky. For one thing, his wife Mary Ann had just given birth to their first child, a son named John, so he had other things on his mind besides baseball. Additionally, he saw it as a good opportunity. “After last season I knew I wasn’t going to get to play for the Phillies,” he said. “I never had a chance to make the club. Apparently, I didn’t fit into their plans.”
Shockley was given a chance to play regularly in 1965, but the Angels also had veteran first baseman Joe Adcock, who was still productive in his age 37 season. Shockley got off to a terrible start in April, with just 3 hits in 25 at-bats. He started to turn things around in May. He hit a grand slam off Boston’s Dave Morehead on May 4 and nearly reached .200 by the end of the month. Still, the Angels decided to send Shockley to Triple-A Seattle of the Pacific Coast League on June 12. Except he never joined Seattle and was placed on the disqualified list instead. Unhappy with his situation, Shockley threatened to quit, and he followed through on his threat, too.
“I definitely don’t plan to return to the minors, now or in the future,” he told the Wilmington Morning News. “I’m through with that phase of baseball. I have nothing to prove in the minors. What I want to prove is that I can also hit in the majors. But I have to be given a chance to do this.”
Shockley noted that the 1964 Phillies were fighting for the NL pennant, which made his demotion more acceptable — they needed the best hitters they could get. The Angels were a second-division team, by contrast. “If the Angels were pennent contenders this year it would be a different story. Then, I would go to Seattle with the hope of being recalled before the season was over. But the Angels aren’t contenders. They’re building,” he said. And they were building with a 37-year-old first baseman in Adcock instead of the 23-year-old Shockley.
In parts of two seasons in the majors, Shockley played in 51 games, with a .197/.255/.275 slash line. He had 2 doubles and 3 home runs among his 28 hits. He also drove in 19 runs and scored 9 times.Though his defense with the 1964 Phillies was a little rough, he played much better with the Angels in 1965 — he had 1 error in 225 innings for a .996 fielding percentage.
Shockley and his family returned to Delaware, and he spent more than 30 years in Georgetown working in the construction business with IA Construction. He did get back into baseball soon after retiring, though on a much smaller level. He agreed to coach a Georgetown little league team that featured his younger brother, Joe, as a shortstop. He admitted he hadn’t planned on doing anything related to baseball, but one of the coaches had to quit because of a job change, and he stepped in. “And now I think I’m going to like it,” he said. “I enjoy working with the kids and I think maybe I can help them a little bit.”
He stayed involved with little league coaching long enough for his own son, Jeff, to start playing. The father and son were part of a Georgetown All-Stars team that won the Senior Little League World Series in 1981 — Jeff as second baseman and Costen as assistant coach. The team, made up of 13- to 15-year-old players, beat a team from San Ramon Valley, Calif., to be crowned champions. Five of the players, including Jeff, were named to the All-World team after the championship. The following year, the team was given the John J. Brady Memorial Award as Delaware Athletes of the Year.
“I’ve had some great experiences in sports, but this compares right up there with the top ones,” said Shockley. “What this team accomplished last summer has given me more self-satisfaction than anything I’ve achieved. When the season starts, getting to the World Series is in your mind, but you don’t think you have a chance. It’s impossible. But this team proved it can happen, in as small a town as Georgetown, if you get the breaks and the kids play their hearts out for you. And these kids did.”
Shockley was inducted into the Delaware Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 1998. Mary Lou Shockley died in 1994, and he was married to his second wife, Susan, for 20 years. He is also survived by sons Curt and Jeff, stepdaughters Julie, Rebecca and Kate, and many extended relatives.
Note: There have been various alterations to the Collective Bargaining Agreement between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association over the years. Without getting into the weeds too much, there were a total of 874 ballplayers who played between 1947 and 1979 who spent too few days in the majors to be fully vested in the pension program — including Costen Shockley. Had they come up to the majors in more recent years, they would have been fully vested after their first game in the bigs. But due to timing, they have never received monthly payments from the MLBPA. All they get is a check once a year from the Association that varies in amount, depending on their accumulated service time. However, it pales in comparison to vested players’ benefits, and that payment does not transfer to the family following their deaths. There are now approximately 511 surviving players who have been left behind by MLB and the MLBPA, and they are at the age where medical expenses can pile up quickly. They gave the better part of their youths to play baseball, and they’ve been left with precious little to show for it, financially. It is a wrong that could be righted quickly and easily, and it would bring financial security to many ex-players and their families at a time when they would need it the most. But the Players Association has never attempted to address it.
For more information: Legacy.com