Obituary: John Wockenfuss (1949-2022)


RIP to John Wockenfuss, a popular player with a distinctive batting stance and a productive career as a utility catcher/infielder/outfielder. He died on August 19 at the age of 73. He had gone public with his struggles with dementia in 2019. Wockenfuss played for the Detroit Tigers (1974-83) and Philadelphia Phillies (1984-85).

According to a 2019 article on NNY360.com, Wockenfuss was diagnosed with dementia two weeks after getting married in 2018. He attributed it to the collisions he suffered while playing catcher, including three occasions where he was knocked unconscious. A year after his diagnosis, Wockenfuss was unable to sign the many baseball cards that fans sent him, because he suffered from essential tremors and was unable to control his hands. He also struggled to come up with names and details as he told stories from his career. It took him some time to recall that it was Buddy Bell who hit him hard enough to knock him out. “He came up, bigger than snot and he hit me like crazy,” Wockenfuss said in the article. “That’s why I (have) the dementia. That’s how (the game) was.”

Wockenfuss is survived by sons Brad and Jeremy and daughters Caitlin and Jessica. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center.

Johnny Bilton Wockenfuss was born in Welch, W.V., on February 27, 1949. He went to Dickinson High School in Wilmington, Del., and was the starting quarterback of the school football team. He also played basketball and baseball and received scholarship opportunities to play football and track in college. However, baseball was the sport for him and his father, so he elected to pursue it professionally. Wockenfuss was an All-City shortstop in Wilmington, but he also had some pitching ability. He and Dickinson teammate Bob Kryzwicki combined on a 7-0 no-hitter on April 10, 1967, against Gunning Bedford. Wockenfuss worked the first 5 innings, striking out 7, and he also got 2 hits in 4 trips to the plate. He was 7-0 in his senior year as a pitcher and batted .450.

The Washington Senators drafted Wockenfuss in the 42nd Round of the 1967 June Amateur Draft. Of the 16 players taken in that round, he was the only one to ever reach the majors. Joe Branzel, who scouted Wockenfuss, said that the team would use him as a position player instead of a pitcher. “I think John’s future in the major leagues depends on his hitting. We know John can pitch, but we drafted him primarily for his hitting potential — and his all-out hustle,” Branzel said.

Wockenfuss’s pro career didn’t start off like he expected. There were 50 players on his first team, the Geneva Senators of the Low-A New York-Pennsylvania League. Only 25 could suit up for a game, so the remaining ballplayers were the “10 o’clock scholars,” since their only official duty was to drill each day at 10:00am. Wockenfuss worked out as a third baseman and outfielder, both of which were positions he played in high school. He only appeared in 3 games in 1967, with a hit in 7 at-bats. His playing time didn’t improve much in 1968, with a .197 batting average in 39 games. He did hit his first 4 professional home runs.

The Senators kept Wockenfuss in A-Ball for all of 1969, and then he spent three seasons (1970-72) at Double-A Pittsfield. Along the way, the team moved to Texas and became the Rangers, and Wockenfuss began to hit with some regularity. He homered 15 times with Pittsfield in 1970 and raised his batting average to .288 in ’72. He was one of five Pittsfield Rangers players selected to the Eastern League All-Star Game. He also developed the all-around fielding abilities that marked his major-league career. After starting as a third baseman, Wockenfuss moved to the outfield but also filled in around the infield wherever he was needed. In 1972, he made the transition behind the plate and spent 123 games as a catcher. He had the arm for the role. In a game in 1969, Wockenfuss threw out three baserunners from center field in one game. Though he committed 24 passed balls as a first-year catcher, he also had an impressive .992 fielding percentage.

Wockenfuss reached Triple-A Spokane by 1973 and was batting .204 in a limited role when he was part of a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals. Texas sent him and pitcher Mike Nagy to St. Louis for pitcher Jim Bibby. Years later, Wockenfuss admitted that he got in a fight with Rangers minor-league coach Marty Martinez, which may have sped up his departure from the organization. The catcher acknowledged he had a fierce temper early in his career, with multiple fines, broken batting helmets and swollen knuckles from punching holes in the dugout roof.

Source: The Morning News (Wilmington, Del.), February 5, 1987.

Wockenfuss finished the 1973 season with the Cardinals’ Triple-A team in Tulsa and was traded to Detroit in December for a minor-leaguer. By 1974, Wockenfuss was entering his eighth season as a professional ballplayer, though he was just 25 years old. Ordinarily, being a rookie catcher in the Tigers organization would be a bad thing, but he caught a bit of a break. Detroit’s perennial All-Star backstop, Bill Freehan (another catcher who died from dementia, it should be noted), had moved to first base. That opened up the role of catcher to competition. Most of the starts went to Jerry Moses and Gene Lamont, but neither hit particularly well. Wockenfuss was called to the majors when Moses broke a finger later that season. He made his debut on August 11, 1974, against Texas — where he was reunited with many of his minor-league teammates.

“Yeah, my old buddies on the Rangers sorta kidded me when they saw me,” Wockenfuss told Wilmington’s The Morning News. “They were saying things like, ‘See what you get for hanging in there’ and stuff like, ‘Attaboy.'”

Wockenfuss went 0-for-2 with a walk and a throwing error in his first game. He picked up his first hit and RBI on August 14, breaking up a shutout by Kansas City’s Steve Busby with a run-scoring single in the ninth inning, making the final score 9-1. Over the rest of the season, Wockenfuss hit .138 over 13 games, and he had some problems throwing the ball to second base accurately. Still, he had met a very important career goal. Prior to the season, he had told himself that he would retire if he hadn’t reached the majors. “I have a wife and a son, and I just can’t keep moving all over the country,” he said. So he had reached the majors in what he called his make-or-break season. The next goal was to stay in the majors.

Freehan moved back behind the plate in 1975, and Wockenfuss started the season in Triple-A Evansville. After hitting well, the Tigers brought him back to the majors in June. Both Freehan and backup catcher Terry Humphrey were injured, so Wockenfuss became the emergency starter. He started his first game with the Tigers on June 11 and slammed a solo homer off Frank Tanana of the California Angels in the first game of a doubleheader. He got 2 hits in the second game before it was suspended due to rain. In his first week, Wockenfuss homered twice more, and after a 4-for-5 night against Boston on June 17, his batting average peaked at .429. “I’m just playing to the best of my ability. I figure I’m at the stadium for a number of hours a night, so I’m going to go as hard as I can in that time,” he said of his success.

As Freehan returned to active duty, Wockenfuss moved to a backup role, and his hitting tailed off. His 1975 season essentially ended on September 7 when he collided with Buddy Bell of the Cleveland Indians (in the incident he described above). “I didn’t come to my senses until I was on the way to the hospital,” he said. Along with a concussion, he injured his shoulder and only made one more appearance the rest of the season. Wockenfuss ended his first real stint in the majors with a .229/.287/.432 slash line in 35 games.

Wockenfuss asked for a raise in 1976. Not only was he told to take his only contract offer or leave it, but the Tigers acquired young catcher Milt May to back up Freehan. The experience left Wockenfuss disenchanted, but he had a noteworthy supporter on his side: Hall of Fame Negro Leagues player and Wilmington resident Judy Johnson. “I’ve followed his whole career John’s a good boy,” Johnson said. “He’s gonna make it. He’s got the ability. He’s got the gas in the car but if he doesn’t push the accelerator he won’t move. You’ve got to eat baseball, sleep it and you’ve got to play it. That’s what John has to do.”

Wockenfuss spent 1976 vying for playing time with Freehan and Bruce Kimm at catcher after May was injured early in the season. Kimm became the personal catcher of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, and Wockenfuss was used whenever the Tigers were facing a fast team. He hit .222 in 60 games with 3 home runs. Freehan retired after the season, so Wockenfuss entered 1977 with a new opportunity… and a new batting stance. It was something he picked up while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, he said. Wockenfuss put both feet on the back of the batters box, to the point that he basically turned his back to the pitcher. See the clip below.

It probably shouldn’t have worked, but it in fact coincided with a dramatically improved offense. Let it be a lesson to youth league coaches everywhere. People can hit with any stance if they have the talent to make it work. Wockenfuss, for example, finished 1977 with a .274/.331/.500 slash line, for an OPS+ of 119. It was the first of eight straight seasons of OPS+ over 100. He hit 9 home runs, including 2 against Texas on July 29, and drove in 25 runs.

Wockenfuss spent the entire 1976-77 offseason assuming he would be drafted by one of the two new expansion teams, Toronto or Seattle. When it didn’t happen, he decided to splurge on a $400 diamond pendant with his number, 45. When he arrived in training camp, he found out that the team gave him a new number, 14. Such was his luck. Milt May had taken the role of starting catcher, and Detroit had a promising catching prospect in Lance Parrish working his way through the minor leagues. With playing time at catcher becoming scarce, Wockenfuss started demonstrating the defensive versatility that he had shown in college and his early years in the minors.

In 1978, Wockenfuss didn’t appear as a catcher for a single inning. He had a sore shoulder in spring training and didn’t see much improvement even after numerous cortisone shots. So he spent the year as a part-time right fielder, moving over to left field when Steve Kemp was injured. He batted .283 in 71 games, homering 7 times. He returned to the catcher role in 1979 as a backup to Parrish, but he also spent plenty of time as a first baseman and corner outfielder. He hit .264 with 15 home runs, with 7 of them coming over a span of 11 games in July and August. He had two homers against Texas on August 8, including his first career grand slam. He was rewarded by the team with a contract through the 1982 season, and the Detroit fans gave him a loud and sustained ovation on September 9, when he drove in all 3 runs in a victory over the New York Yankees. “That was nice. That was really nice,” he admitted after the game.

Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, who was hired during the 1979 season, used Wockenfuss in a variety of roles in 1980. He appeared in a career-high 126 games, including 52 at first base, 28 at designated hitter, 23 at catcher, 21 in left field and 2 in right field. “I don’t know what I’m doing until I look at the lineup card,” he said. It was the only time Wockenfuss appeared in more than 100 games in a season, and he predictably set career highs in most offensive categories. He slashed .274/.390/.449 for an OPS+ of 128. He reached the triple-digit mark with 102 hits, including 13 doubles and 16 home runs. He scored 56 times and drove in 65 runs. He also had a new attitude, thanks to newfound religious beliefs. He was no longer unsatisfied with his role on the Tigers and stopped taking any frustrations home with him.

Wockenfuss had an off year in the strike-shortened 1981 season. He batted .215 while spending most of the season as the team’s DH. When the strike occurred, Wockenfuss returned to Delaware to play in a semipro league. He bounced back with Detroit in 1982, batting over .300 (.301 to be exact) for the only time in his career, albeit as a backup once more. He was also on a team that was on the rise. When Wockenfuss first reached the majors with Detroit, it was in the midst of some bad teams, with a few aging holdovers from the team’s dominance in the late 1960s. By 1982, the team had a collection of excellent young talent, including Parrish, Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris. The Tigers made it all the way up to second place in 1983 with 92 wins. Wockenfuss was once again a valuable utility piece, even getting a few innings at third base in addition to all his other positions. As the Tiger with the longest tenure, he could see the changes in the team. “I think now they realize they’re just as good as the guys who have been beating them for years,” he said of the team’s new stars. “They realized that they beat all these guys in the minor leagues, and now they know that can beat them in the majors.”

Detroit put it all together in 1984, getting off to a hot start and winning the World Series. Ironically, the final pieces of the puzzle were added by a trade that sent Wockenfuss and outfielder Glenn Wilson to Philadelphia for closer Guillermo Hernandez and utility player Dave Bergman. That move led the Phillies to unload a couple of outfielders to the Chicago Cubs — Bob Dernier and Gary Matthews, who helped the Cubs break a long postseason drought. So really, Wockenfuss had a role in two teams advancing to the 1984 playoffs — but the Phillies weren’t one of them. They were a .500 team and finished in fourth place in the NL East.

John Wockenfuss ran several businesses during his life, including an archery and hunting supplies store in Pennsylvania during his time with the Phillies. Here, he tests out a new bow as employees look on. Source: The Morning News, October 11, 1984.

The trade took place for several reasons. The Phillies and manager Paul Owens had been interested in Wockenfuss’s versatility for some time. The player welcomed the deal, since Philadelphia was an hour away from his home in Delaware. The thing that really put the trade in motion was his dissatisfaction with his contract. Wockenfuss later said that Tigers management had promised him a raise during spring training and then failed to deliver on it. He negotiated his own contract for $200,000 and was told the team had no more money.

“As soon as I signed, they started giving these clowns $800,000. I took them for their word. They turned around and [dumped] on me,” he said, adding that he would welcome a trade. “A guy [Tom Monaghan] just buys the club for $50 million and he’s worth $150 million. Please.” After the season, he stressed that he hadn’t called Monaghan cheap. “I was only questioning his motives,” he said.

Wockenfuss didn’t see any dramatic increase in his playing time with the Phillies. He remained as productive as ever, though, with a .289 batting average in 86 games and 6 home runs. His playing time all but vanished in 1985, when he was 36 years old. He had just 45 at-bats in 32 games and batted .162, with no extra-base hits. He hated wasting away on the bench and asked to be traded, but the Phillies found no takers. He was released in August of 1985, bringing his major-league career to an end.

In 12 seasons, Wockenfuss had a .262/.349/.432 slash line, with 543 hits that included 73 doubles, 11 triples and 86 home runs. He drove in 310 runs and scored 267 times. Baseball Reference credits him with 7.1 Wins Above Replacement, and he has a career OPS+ of 115. He spent the bulk of his playing time at catcher (269 games), ending with a .972 fielding percentage there. He threw out 30% of baserunners, a little below league average of 35%. He also played 184 games at first base, 69 in right field, 42 in left field, 4 at third base and 144 at designated hitter.

Wockenfuss tried in vain to catch on with the Tigers in the spring of 1986. When that plan didn’t work, he spent the season with the Miami Marlins of the Florida State League. He joked that, at age 37, he was older than many of the league’s managers. Management, he said, was a profession that appealed to him. “I think I have something to offer in the game. I can work with the kids,” Wockenfuss said during the season. “I know if they played for me they would be motivated. They would hustle.”

Minor League Baseball banned chewing tobacco while Wockenfuss was managing the Carolina Mud Cats, and he had to use gum as a substitute. Source: Standard Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.), June 16, 1993.

The Tigers brought Wockenfuss back into the organization in 1987, when he was made manager of the Lakeland Tigers of the Florida State League. He managed in the Detroit system for four seasons, including two seasons at Triple-A Toledo. He was let go in May of 1990 in what may have been a conflict between his old-school baseball beliefs and modern-day minor-leaguers. After spending time as a youth coach, he worked as a manager in 1992 and ’93 in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor leagues. Wockenfuss underwent surgery in April of 1993 to have two discs removed from his back, and the pain forced him to miss much of the season. He retired, believing that the back pain would end his managerial career. He came back to manage the Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs of the independent Northeast League in 1996. In two seasons, the Dogs won the league title in 1996 and lost in the championship series in 1997. He resigned after the 1997 season to devote more time to his other work.

Wockenfuss always had multiple ventures during his playing and managing career. At various points in time, he owned a pizza place, an archery and hunting supplies store and a charter fishing operation. He got involved with youth instruction in 1994 when he opened a baseball and softball academy in Avondale, Penn. After his time with the Diamond Dogs ended, he remained a hitting instructor and for several years served as a high school baseball coach. Wockenfuss was recognized as one of Delaware’s greatest ballplayers and was named Delaware Athlete of the Year in 1979. He was also inducted into the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.

The NNY360 article linked above notes that Wockenfuss was a baseball traditionalist and didn’t care for many of the game’s modern evolutions. However, he was a strong supporter of the rule changes that eliminated collisions at home plate. He liked the 2012 rule that gave middle infielders added protection and wanted to see it expanded to plays at the plate. “My only problem, you’ve got to slide into second, you can’t just bowl him over, you can’t just lower your shoulder and crush him,” Wockenfuss said at the time. “Why is it you can do it with the catcher?”

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