Obituary: Don G. Leppert (1931-2023)

RIP to Don Leppert, an All-Star catcher who played for 4 seasons in the majors in the 1960s. He died on April 13 in Delaware, Ohio. He was 91 years old. He is also not to be confused with baseball’s other Don Leppert, who played for the 1955 Orioles and who died in 2021. This Don Leppert — Donald George Leppert — played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1961-62) and Washington Senators (1963-64). He also had an extensive coaching career in the majors and a one-game career as an umpire.

Leppert was born in Indianapolis on October 19, 1931. He stayed in Indiana for all of his education, from Washington High School in Indianapolis to Hanover College and Wabash College in Hanover and Crawfordsville, respectively. He played multiple sports in high school, but he focused on football and track in college. His entry into professional baseball didn’t happen until he was 23 years old, because he spent more than three years in the Air Force, playing baseball wherever he was stationed. He signed with the Milwaukee Braves and scout Roxy Middelton and started his pro career with the Evansville Braves in 1955. Leppert stood over 6 feet tall, weighed 220 pounds and looked the part of a veteran catcher. “He takes a good cut at the ball and he has plenty of power,” said Evansville manager Bob Coleman. “I don’t know how much he will hit, but he has power. And he has the best throwing arm in this camp.”

Leppert didn’t stay in Evansville for long. He hit .349 in 19 games and was moved to Corpus Christi of the Big State League. His batting average dropped to .239, but he homered 10 times, finishing his first season with a combined .260 average, 13 home runs and 42 RBIs. His batting average stayed low for his first few seasons, but the power continued to grow. In 1957, he batted .233 for the Austin Senators of the Double-A Texas League but hit 16 doubles and 20 homers. Within his first five games, he hit two grand slams and put a hole in the scoreboard on the left-center field wall. Injuries may have contributed to his low batting averages. As a catcher, Leppert was banged up pretty often, and he wasn’t always able to get the needed recovery time. In one instance in 1958, he broke his thumb but had to keep catching because the team’s other catcher was hurt even worse. He even thought about retiring, but Braves management convinced him to keep playing.

Leppert’s hitting ability caught up to his power in time. He batted .270 in 1959 while spending most of the season in Triple-A Dallas and a few games back in Austin. He remained with Dallas the the team transferred affiliations to the Kansas City A’s and added 17 more homers to his totals in 1960. He also tied Houston’s Ron Santo in a pre-game home run derby on May 9. They both went deep three times and were awarded $12.50 each for their efforts.

Leppert was known for being a fiery catcher, though he found himself in the middle of one fight in 1961 after trying to play peacemaker. According to The Austin Statesman, a Charleston batter homered off Austin pitcher Marion Fricano. The next batter, naturally, ducked after an inside pitch. Rather than shake it off, the batter made a few gestures toward Fricano. Leppert saw what was coming. “You’re going to have to hit the dirt again,” he warned the batter. “But don’t go out there after him. Just keep calm.” The batter took another inside pitch and decided to charge the mound. He never made it; Leppert leveled him with a flying tackle from behind before he got close to Fricano.

Don Leppert, right, and Tom Cheney celebrate a Senators win against Boston. Leppert homered 3 times, and Cheney threw a 1-hitter. Source: Lebanon Daily News, April 12, 1963.

Leppert was traded to Columbus of the International League, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, in the offseason. He got off to a blazing hot start in 1961. In 39 games, he batted .386 and got on base at a .450 clip. The Pirates called up the 29-year-old rookie in the middle of June as a backup for Smoky Burgess and 1960 World Series hero Hal Smith. Leppert played his first game on June 18 against St. Louis. In his first major-league at-bat, he slammed a solo home run against Curt Simmons. Later in the game, he picked Tim McCarver off first base. As the third catcher behind two more experienced backstops, Leppert didn’t play much. However, he batted .267 in his 22 games and hit 3 home runs. Leppert saw more playing time in 1962 with the departure of Smith. He served as part of a platoon with the lefty-hitting Burgess before the hot-hitting Burgess took over the position entirely. Leppert slashed .266/.327/.388 in 45 games, with 3 home runs and 18 RBIs. On December 15, Pittsburgh traded Leppert to the Washington Senators for a minor-league pitcher and cash.

Leppert gained instant popularity among Washington fans. On April 11, 1963, in just his third game as a Senator, the catcher hit home runs in the fourth, sixth and eighth innings. He drove in 5 runs while batterymate Tom Cheney threw a 1-hitter to beat Boston 8-0. Leppert matched his season high for home runs in one game, though he was humble about the feat. “Two of the home runs would have been outs in Pittsburgh,” he said. “That center field fence in Pittsburgh is 465 feet from home plate.”

Leppert remained hot through most of the first half of the season. After a 2-for-4 performance on May 1, he was the Senators’ leading hitter with a .340 mark. He couldn’t sustain that momentum, but by the time that Major League Baseball reached its All-Star break, Leppert was still batting .259. Given that the Washington Senators were a last-place team but needed an All-Star representative, he was selected as the AL’s third catcher, behind Earl Battey and Elston Howard. He did not play in the All-Star Game. Leppert slumped badly over the second half of the season and lost his starting job to Ken Retzer. He played in a career-high 73 games in ’63 and finished the year with a .237/.305/.374 slash line. He had 50 hits, including 11 doubles and 6 home runs, and he drove in 24 runs. The Senators gave the starting catcher job in 1964 to rookie Mike Brumley. Leppert hit .156 in 50 games as a backup catcher and pinch-hitter in what proved to be his last year in the majors.

Leppert played in a total of 190 games over his 4 seasons in the majors. He slashed .229/.289/.363, and his 122 hits included 22 doubles, 2 triples and 15 home runs. He drove in 59 runs and scored 46 times. He had a career fielding percentage of .985 as a catcher, and he threw out 19 basestealers for a 23% success rate.

Leppert played for two more seasons in the minor leagues. While playing for the Hawaii Islanders in 1965, he became the first Pacific Coast League player to hit a home run over the left field stands in Honolulu Stadium and just the third player to ever hit one out of the stadium. The others were Johnny Kerr, a local player in the 1930s, and Joe DiMaggio, who played on the 7th Air Force team during World War II. Leppert wrapped up his playing career in 1966, and he had a choice to make: stay in baseball as a minor-league manager or stay in Greenwood, Ind., where he ran an insurance business and lived with his wife and four children.

“Pittsburgh and Atlanta have expressed interest in having me manage in their organizations,” Leppert explained. “I want to talk to Joe E. Brown [Pittsburgh general manager] and Jim Fanning [Atlanta farm director], but I’m not sure in my own mind what I want to do.”

Pittsburgh hired Leppert to manage the Class-A Gastonia Pirates of the Western Carolinas League for 1967. After the season, he was brought back to the majors to serve as catching and bullpen coach for new Pirates manager Larry Shepard. He moved to first base for new manager Danny Murtaugh in 1970. Despite being retired, he was the first man to jump into a fight to protect one of his players. The Cubs and Pirates brawled in July of 1970, and Leppert took care of Glenn Beckert, who had attacked the Bucs’ Rich Hebner. Though that wasn’t his intended target. “If I’d gotten to [Leo Durocher], I’d guarantee you he’d have to resign,” he said after the game. “He was trying to stir up his ball club by hurting one of our players, and I wasn’t about to let it happen. He’s gutless and always starts things like that and then stands aside.”

Leppert, as a Pirates coach, argues in vain with umpire John Rice. Source: The Orlando Sentinel, October 14, 1971.

Leppert stayed with the Pirates through 1976 for manager Bill Virdon and then Murtaugh again. He was part of the 1971 World Championship team, and the Pirates returned to the postseason regularly, though never advancing past the Championship Series again. When Murtaugh retired and Chuck Tanner was hired as the next Pirates manager, Leppert resigned for a role on the Toronto Blue Jays coaching staff for their inaugural 1977 season. He coached the Jays for 3 years, and he even got to spend an inning as a major-league umpire. The major-league umpires went on strike on August 25, leaving nobody to call the Blue Jays-Twins game in Toronto. Jays management recruited a couple of amateur umpires, and they were joined by Twins coach Jerry Zimmerman and Leppert. They returned to their coaching roles when a third amateur ump was located, and Toronto won the game 7-3 without any controversial calls.

Source: Pittsburgh Post Gazette, May 29, 1985.

Leppert’s final major-league stop came as a third base coach for the Houston Astros, starting in 1980. He was hired by his former Pirates manager Virdon, and he stayed with the team until 1985. He was fired in late May — because of a communications problem between two other coaches. The team didn’t have closer Dave Smith ready to enter a game against the Cubs, so rookie pitcher Mark Ross was left in to surrender a game-winning home run to Ron Cey. Houston decided to add a bullpen pitching coach, Les Moss, which put the team over the allowed number of coaches. Leppert, who was the only remaining coach from the Virdon era (Bob Lillis managed the team by then), was fired. He fired a couple of parting shots on his way out the door, too.

“The Astros want everyone to be a gentleman, to look nice on the airplanes, to have no beer on the bus. Sometimes I think they believe that’s more important than winning games… They think being clean-shaven is more important. I want to win,” he said.

Leppert returned to the minors to manage the Kenosha Twins of the Midwest League in 1986 and 1987. He led the team to the league championship in 1987. After that, he moved into the Minnesota front office, serving as a field coordinator for the team’s farm system. He spent several years traveling throughout the Twins minor-league system and was promoted to coordinator of the team’s Florida operations in November of 1993. Florida suited the life-long outdoorsman, though the years of catching necessitated a couple of knee replacement surgeries. He retired around 1996 and spent his free time fishing in his new home of Cape Coral. Eventually, he and wife Daphine moved to Ohio to be closer to their family. In addition to his wife of 64 years, Leppert is survived by children Steve, Kim, Mike, Joe and Tim, as well as their families.

For more information: Snyder Funeral Homes

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