RIP to Joe Staton, a first baseman who played for the Detroit Tigers for parts of the 1972 and ’73 seasons. He was also a long-time community activist and supporter of youth sports in his native Seattle. He died on Mercer Island, Wash., on June 20. He was 74 years old.
Joseph Stanton was born in Seattle on March 8, 1948. His father, Joe Sr., was a semipro ballplayer, as well as an actor in Seattle’s Negro Repertory Company and a columnist for the Northwest Enterprise, a black newspaper in Seattle. (See the lovely tribute to Joe Staton in The Seattle Medium.) Joe Jr. played semipro baseball in Seattle all throughout his teenage years, when he wasn’t playing for Garfield High, Seattle Community College or Columbia Basin Junior College. He was chosen to represent his home town in a “Seattle vs. State” baseball classic in 1966, played at Sick’s Stadium. He was one of the cleanup hitters in the doubleheader, featuring some of the leading high school baseball talent in Washington. Staton hit .500 as a Garfield High senior in 1966 and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Second Round of the 1967 January Draft. The Yankees made offers as well, but neither team offered very much money, and Staton continued to study and play ball at CBC instead.
The Detroit Tigers took notice of Staton through his play with the Seattle Studs during the Amateur Athletics Baseball Congress National Tournament in 1965. It was held in Michigan, and Tigers scouting director Bernie DeViveiros was impressed by the young first baseman. Staton signed with the Tigers in early 1970 and joined the organization’s Lakeland club in the Class-A Florida State League. He showed how dangerous a hitter he could be in a game against the Cocoa Astros on July 23, 1970. Staton ripped a hard line drive that caught pitcher J.R. Richard in the right hand, splitting it open. Richard had to leave the game and get six stitches in his hand, but he still had to presence of mind to throw the bloody baseball to third base and get a force play. Not many other pitchers were able to retire Staton that year. He won the FSL batting title with a .346 average, including 22 doubles, 7 home runs and 42 stolen bases.
Staton moved to the Rocky Mount Leafs of the Class-A Carolina League in 1971 and continued to impress with the bat. He hit .303, and while he had just 5 home runs, one of them was a missle that cleared the right-center field fence at his home stadium by 30 feet. The Rocky Mount Telegram reported that Staton won a Barcalounger for the feat and was just the second player to ever win the prize. Staton also worked to improve his defense at first base. Along with leading the FSL in hitting in 1970, he also led the league with 32 errors at first base.
“I have really worked hard on my fielding this spring,” Staton said at the start of the ’71 season. “I am trying to make sure that I have the ball in my glove before I try to make the play.” Rocky Mount manager Len Okrie later raved over Staton’s fielding, so the hard work apparently paid off.
Detroit promoted Staton to Double-A Montgomery in 1972, and he remained there for most of the season, aside from a short stay in Triple-A Toledo. His batting and speed remained impressive, and he also spent time in the outfield as well as first base. Montgomery won the Southern League championship, and Detroit rewarded several of its top players with promotions to the majors, including Staton. “It was really a surprise,” the first baseman said when he reached Detroit. “I had just sent my suits home to Seattle.”
Staton appeared in 6 games for Detroit in September, mostly as a pinch runner. He scored 1 run and was caught stealing once. He didn’t get to the plate until a 4-1 loss to Boston on October 4. Most of the Tigers starters were replaced during the game, and Staton took over for Frank Howard in the fourth inning. He was hitless in his two at-bats.
Staton returned to Montgomery in 1973 and had a career-high 10 home runs, to go with 39 stolen bases in 47 attempts. He batted .282 and scored 83 runs. The Tigers once again brought him to the majors in September and finally gave him a start on September 16 against Milwaukee. His first major-league hit was an RBI single against the Brewers’ Eduardo Rodriguez. His second hit was an RBI single off Bill Champion. In between, he also added a stolen base and played perfectly at first base in a 5-3 loss. Staton also started the last two games of the season and added a couple more hits, finishing with a .235 batting average and 2 runs scored.
Staton did not return to the majors after the 1973 season. Over parts of two seasons, he appeared in a total of 15 games, with 4 singles in 19 at-bats for a .211/.211/.211 slash line. He drove in 3 runs, stole 1 base in 2 attempts and scored 3 runs. He committed 1 error at first base for a .973 fielding percentage.
Detroit had an opening at first base, as Norm Cash turned 40 after the 1973 season and was nearing the end of his great career. However, the Tigers opted to move catcher Bill Freehan to first base in 1974, along with a host of other rookies, before Jason Thompson took the position over for a few years in 1976. Staton was out of the Tigers organization by then. The team sold his contract to the Mexico City Reds in April of 1974, and he spent two seasons in the Mexican League before quitting baseball. His best season with the Reds was 1974, when he hit .297 with 9 triples and 9 home runs. Including his time in Mexico City, Staton hit .298 in the minor leagues, with 177 stolen bases. He contracted a stomach virus in 1975 and left Mexico as quickly as he could once he recovered.
“It was what they call Montezuma’s Recenge, and it was the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened to me,” Staton later recalled. “I saw guys lose 40 and 50 pounds with it. I couldn’t afford that. I had to get out of there.”
Staton returned to Seattle and kept in shape. In 1977, he attempted a comeback with the Bellingham Mariners of the Northwest League. He tried out for the team in the spring as a non-rostered player. “My age may work against me,” said the 29-year-old Staton, “but I’ve got experience. And a young team just getting started like this one can use some experience… And besides, I may be 29 but I feel more like 19. Believe me, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could make the ballclub.”
Staton failed to make the team, but he didn’t give up on baseball. In the 1990s he took part in the Seattle RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner cities) program. The Seattle Mariners, local community groups and churches helped in the initiative, as did Staton and fellow Seattle native Bill North. “We played baseball at the park all day when I was a kid,” North told Stephen Bray of The Olympian. “But now there is more mess around. There’s gangs and drugs. We’re trying to take kids away from that, offer them something positive.”
Staton remained a key figure in encouraging African-American kids in Washington to play baseball. He was the Executive Director for the Central Area Youth Association (CAYA). As a teenager, Staton played on CAYA ballclubs in amateur tournaments. As the executive director later in his life, he spent more than two decades leading after-school sports programs.
“Staton was a calm and cool man in conversation, but he would talk excitedly about the CAYA kids and the inner-city youth he coached in baseball in an introduction to baseball program by the Seattle Mariners. He was a mentor not only in sports skills and sportsmanship but in life lessons,” wrote The Seattle Medium.
Staton and his wife, Rhonda, were married for 30 years. He is also survived by four children and a large extended family.
For more information: The Seattle Medium