Obituary: Denny Doyle (1944-2022)

RIP to Denny Doyle, an infielder for 8 seasons in the majors in the 1970s and an influential baseball instructor. A resident of Winter Garden, Fla., Doyle died on December 20 at the age of 78. He played for the Philadelphia Phillies (1970-73), California Angels (1974-75) and Boston Red Sox (1975-77)

Robert Dennis Doyle was born in Glasgow, Ky., on January 17, 1944. His obituary notes that he was the second of four children born to Virginia and Robert Doyle. Along with his older sister Janice, he had younger twin brothers, Blake and Brian. Both were drafted into pro ball, and Brian Doyle reached the majors as a backup infielder in the late 1970s. Despite Denny’s smaller stature (Baseball Reference lists him as 5’9″ and 175 pounds), he played every sport he could at Caverna High School in Horse Cave, Ky., including football and basketball. Caverna’s baseball team had some excellent seasons and became the smallest high school to capture a state championship in 1961; Doyle was a key factor in that success as a hitter and, frequently, a pitcher. He also was a star basketball player and was named to the All-Southern Kentucky Team in 1961, even though he was about 6 inches shorter than most of the other players who were honored. He earned a basketball scholarship at Morehead College and majored in education.

Doyle continued to impress as an collegiate athlete while he earned a Bachelor’s in Education. He was one of the top hitters in the Ohio Valley Conference and batted .390 in 1962. The Philadelphia Phillies and scout Mel Clark signed Doyle to a contract in 1965, though he stayed at Morehead for another year to finish his degree. The story related in his obituary is that Clark signed Doyle after watching the young player teach a little league clinic… something that he would do frequently after his playing days were over.

Doyle gets tangled up with Houston’s Cesar Cedeno while completing a double play. Source: The Lexington Herald, June 10, 1972.

The Phillies assigned Doyle to Class-A Spartanburg in 1966. There, the 22-year-old second baseman first teamed with 20-year-old shortstop Larry Bowa as a double-play combination. The duo would take slightly different routes to the major leagues through the Phillies’ farm system, but they ended up debuting in the very same major-league game in 1970. Doyle batted .308, cracked 21 doubles and stole 28 bases for Spartanburg and was added to Philadelphia’s 40-man winter roster, along with Bowa.

With all due respect to Bowa, the secret to Doyle’s success at Spartanburg may have been a different teammate — his wife, Martha. The rookie second baseman was struggling and homesick in South Carolina until Martha, his high school sweetheart, and baby daughter Melynn joined him in Spartanburg. From there, Doyle hit and fielded well enough to be named the team’s MVP. He would have ended up on the Phillies roster in 1967 but for the fact that the team acquired infielder Tito Francona in the spring. Doyle instead worked his way through the minors. He batted .278 for Class-A Tidewater in 1967 but slipped to .246 with Reading of the Double-A Eastern League in ’68. He rebounded with a great season for the Eugene Emeralds of the Pacific Coast League in 1969. Doyle batted .310 and hit 29 doubles, 14 triples and 6 home runs, for a .438 slugging percentage.

Eugene also benefited from the Doyle-Bowa double-play combination. Not only did the two complement each other beautifully on the field, their personalities also meshed well together. Bowa was the fiery young shortstop and Doyle was the more level-headed, mature second baseman. “Anybody breaks up this combination ought to have his head chopped off,” said Eugene player-coach Doc Edwards.

Doyle was two years older than Bowa and was already using his education degree as a high school basketball coach in the offseason. “I’m no kid,” he said in the summer of 1969. “The day I stop progressing, the day the Phillies stop moving me up the ladder, I’m quitting. I told myself that when I signed,” he said. Fortunately, the Phillies advanced him almost every year. And after a solid season with Eugene in 1969, there was only one place for him in 1970 — the major leagues.

The 1970 Phillies had two rookies in the middle infield with Bowa and Doyle as well as a rookie manager in Frank Lucchesi. Lucchesi came up through the minor leagues with the two ballplayers, so he may have been more lenient with Doyle and Bowa as they struggled offensively. Doyle slashed .208/.266/.281 in 112 games, and Bowa hit .250 with next to no power, though he still finished third in the Rookie of the Year race.

Doyle started off with a bang in his first major-league game on April 7, 1970. As the second hitter in the lineup behind Bowa, he was 3-for-4 with an RBI triple, with all the damage coming against Cubs ace Fergie Jenkins. He slumped in May and never really recovered, and Doyle eventually lost playing time to veteran infielder Tony Taylor. He dislocated his shoulder in June while sliding into third base, trying to avoid a throw from the Braves’ Henry Aaron. Doyle stayed in the lineup because of his defensive skills, but the pain surely hindered his performance at the plate. Doyle ended his rookie campaign with just 10 doubles and 2 home runs, but he had a surprising 7 triples.

The young Phillies teams of the early 1970s didn’t win many games, and their struggles eventually cost Lucchesi his job midway through the 1972 season. He stuck with his young infield, saying in the spring of 1971, “There’s no way I’m going to give up on Denny Doyle. I know what he can do.”

Doyle was held to 95 games in 1971, thanks to an ankle injury in August that curtailed his season. Still, his batting average improved to .231, and he continue to raise it higher in 1972 (.249) and 1973 (.273). He earned the majority of the starts at second base in each year, and he occasionally delivered offensive heroics. When Bob Gibson beat the Phillies on July 30, 1971, by a score of 4-3, he allowed just 6 hits — and Doyle was responsible for 4 of them, including a solo home run. The Phillies moved the lefty-hitting Doyle into a platoon with Terry Harmon, but the little second baseman overlooked the platoons and the trade rumors and kept improving his game. He was never a high-production hitter — he drove in 26 runs in both 1972 and ’73 — but he kept earning his playing time.

Doyle had the best offensive season of his career to date in 1973, with a .273/.327/.338 slash line, and he was rewarded by being traded to the California Angels in the offseason. He wasn’t surprised by the move, considering it had practically been guaranteed way back in mid-August. The Phillies had claimed veteran infielder Billy Grabarkewitz, who had been hitting .163, from the Angels. At the time, Phillies general manager Paul Owens and Angels general manager Harry Dalton made a handshake deal to trade Doyle after the season. At least, that was how the Philadelphia Inquirer staff described it. The Phillies then traded pitcher Ken Brett to Pittsburgh for second baseman Dave Cash in October, all but guaranteeing Doyle was at the end of his Philadelphia tenure. The deal with the Angels, when it was officially announced at the winter meetings in December, was pretty anticlimactic. Grabarkewitz played well as a reserve in Philadelphia, but Doyle hit .341 from the time the deal was made to the end of the season, making it seem as if the Phillies had practically given away a standout defensive second baseman who was starting to hit his stride as a hitter.

“The big thing about me leaving that bothers me is the circumstances,” Doyle said. “The last couple, three years I thought there was a pretty good chance I was going to be traded. Then I had a pretty good year… and apparently I was traded before it was over.”

Source: The Boston Globe, March 9, 1979.

Doyle had the busiest season of his major-league career with the Angels in 1974, getting into 147 games and hitting .260 with 19 doubles, 2 triples, 1 homer and 34 runs driven in. He also fielded second base at a .983 clip and took part in 99 double plays, many with All-Star rookie shortstop Dave Chalk. “It’s a real pleasure to be in Southern California,” Doyle told Long Beach’s Independent columnist Hank Hollingsworth in May of 1974. “My heartfelt thanks to Harry Dalton for getting me out of Philadelphia.”

Doyle’s stay in Southern California wasn’t long, though. Rookie Jerry Remy displaced Doyle at second base in 1975, and Doyle was reduced to a pinch-hitter and back-up infielder. In 8 games with the Angels, he had 1 hit in 15 at-bats before he was traded to the Boston Red Sox on June 14 for a minor-leaguer and cash. The move ended up being the best thing that happened to Doyle in his career, as he became a key part of the Red Sox 1975 AL pennant-winning team.

Doyle went 1-for-4 in his first game as a second baseman for the Red Sox on June 14.. He homered off Kansas City’s Dennis Leonard in his second game. His defense was solid, and he partnered well with young shortstop Rick Burleson, but he came into Boston’s game against Texas on July 12 with a .208 batting average. He was 1-for-2 before being removed in the sixth inning, but that game started an unlikely 22-game hitting streak. Doyle hit at a .392 clip during the streak, with a couple of home runs, to raise his season batting average into the .290s. He finished the year with career highs in many offensive categories, including a .298 batting average, .412 slugging percentage, 21 doubles and 4 home runs. His OPS+ for the season was 102, which was the only time in his career that he posted an OPS+ of over 100.

Doyle was a hot commodity when it became known that the Angels were going to move him, with many pennant contenders hoping to add him before the Red Sox snatched him up. He provided an offensive and defensive lift over former starter Doug Griffin at second base, and the hitting streak cemented his place on the team. Not that he let it go to his head. “I’m just a Punch-and-Judy hitter and nothing spectacular happened during the whole streak,” he said. “Oh yeah, I used the same bat for five weeks, 34 inches, 32 ounces. Dick Allen cleans his teeth with bats like that… I was just lucky. I got over here at just the right time.”

When asked if he had any superstitions during his hitting streak, he joked, “Every time I put the pants on, I made sure the zipper was in front.”

Doyle got on base in every one of Boston’s postseason games that year. He hit .273 in the 3-game sweep of Oakland in the AL Championship Series and .267 against Cincinnati in the World Series. His 8 hits in the Series were second-most among Boston players and included a double and triple. His defense was shakier than usual, as he committed 3 errors during the Series, including 2 in Game Seven. One was a throwing error on what would have been an inning-ending double play in the sixth inning. That error was immediately followed by a 2-run homer by Tony Perez that made the score 3-2 Boston, and the Reds eventually pulled ahead to win the game and the Series. Even though he had been with the team for fewer than 90 games, his Red Sox teammates voted him a full share of the postseason money. Doyle even received a few MVP votes after the season — not bad for someone who started the year sitting on the Angels bench.

Doyle wasn’t unable to repeat his offensive success for the Red Sox in 1976 or ’77. He batted .250 and .240, respectively, with identical .308 slugging percentages in both seasons. He reached highs in runs scored (54) and runs driven in (49) in 1977, and his defense remained above average at second base. A cold bat during the second half of the 1977 season brought about his end with the team. Over the offseason, Boston traded for Jerry Remy, making it the second time that Doyle had been replaced by the future Red Sox announcer. Boston finally released Doyle in March of 1978. Doyle remained available to play should a team come calling, but he quickly adapted to retired life.

“I tell you, I miss it until I’m halfway through my second cup of coffee in the morning,” he told Louisville columnist Phil Coffin. “That’s how long it takes me to look through the box scores and see how some of my friends are doing. Then I don’t miss it at all. Then is about the time my three little gals come down for breakfast.”

Denny Doyle and his family. Source: Doyle Baseball

In 8 seasons in the majors, Doyle had a slash line of .250/.295/.316 for an OPS+ of 70. He had 823 hits that included 113 doubles, 28 triples and 16 home runs. He scored 357 times and drove in 237 runs. He also had a lifetime .977 fielding percentage at second base and had 3 seasons in the Top 5 in fielding percentage.

Doyle put his love of baseball and his education degree to great use for the rest of his life. He started a baseball school in Winter Haven, Fla., along with brothers Brian and Blake. What started as Florida Professional Baseball School became the Doyle Baseball Academy, and thousands of students learned about the game and improved their playing and coaching skills because of it. Many players went on to become major-leaguers themselves, and it still exists today in the Atlanta area. Doyle was also active in the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and was a longtime board members of the organization.

Doyle is survived by his wife, Martha, and daughters Melynn, Robin and Marci, as well as a large extended family.

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