Obituary: Roger Hambright (1949-2023)

RIP to Roger Hambright, whose 10-year career in professional baseball included 18 games pitched for the New York Yankees in 1971. He died on April 15 in Vancouver, Wash., at the age 74 from cancer. A GoFundMe has been set up by his family to help cover his funeral expenses and support for his widow, Rita. Because of the time in which he played and his short major-league career, Hambright did not receive a full pension like most other ballplayers enjoy. You can learn more and donate here:

Roger Dee Hambright was born in Sunnywide, Wash., on March 26, 1949. He attended Columbia River High School, where both he and his brother Ron were staples on the school’s pitching staff. Roger, also a solid hitter, played third base when he wasn’t on the mound. His talent as a pitcher was easily evident, but he was sometimes plagued by bad luck. In 1966, he threw 12 innings of shutout ball but lost 1-0 in the 13th inning. About a week after that, he threw a no-hitter… and lost 1-0. In spite of the lack of run support, Hambright was named to the Columbia Senior High School All-Star Team and began to attract pro scouts.

The 19-year-old Hambright signed with the New York Yankees in January of 1968, while a freshman at Clark College. He officially joined the organization in June and was assigned to the Johnson City Yankees of the rookie-level Appalachian League. He was the busiest reliever on the team, making 31 appearances — 30 out of the pen. Initially, he didn’t take to relieving well, as his 4.25 ERA would indicate. However, within a couple of seasons, he had become of the best relievers in Class-A baseball. In 1969, he saved 7 games for Fort Lauderdale and had a 2.40 ERA in 27 appearances. Hambright made 2 starts and threw a complete game each time. His breakthrough season came in 1970, when his 15 saves for the Kinston Eagles were tied for most in the Carolina League. Hambright had a stellar 1.55 ERA in 45 games, all but one of which came in relief — and he tossed a complete game in his one start. He fanned 96 batters in 93 innings and walked only 34. Hambright was continuing his dominance in Double-A Manchester in 1971 when Yankees reliever Gary Waslewski was put on the disabled list with a knee injury. Though he had yet to reach Triple-A, Hambright was summoned to the majors leagues in July.

“I’d never seen him throw until he came up here,” said Yankees manager Ralph Houk. “But [Manchester manager] Mickey Vernon said he belonged in a higher class. I figured if we were moving him up, I’d better give him a look first.”

Source: The Columbian, December 31, 1971.

Hambright debuted on July 19, 1971, with a scoreless inning of relief on July 19 against the White Sox. The next day, facing the Twins, he was brought into the eighth inning of a game the Yankees were losing 5-1. He pitched 2 scoreless innings. Steve Braun was the only batter to reach first base on a walk, but he was immediately erased on a double play by Jim Nettles. In the bottom of the ninth inning, New York exploded for 5 runs off Bert Blyleven, Tom Hall, Stan Williams and Ron Perranoski. Hambright earned his first major-league win. “I’m happy, I am really happy,” he told reporters later. “This calls for a celebration. I’m going out and have a big steak dinner.”

By then, the young pitcher had accepted his role. “I’m so accustomed to being in the pen, I really enjoy it. It takes a certain knack to come in and do a good job, and it’s a great feeling when you know you’ve done it well.”

The relief appearances weren’t all perfect. Hambright took the loss in his next game on July 27, allowing 4 runs to the White Sox in extra innings, including a 3-run, walk-off homer to Bill Melton to end the game with a 9-6 Yankees defeat. But Houk trotted him out on a regular basis through the end of the season, frequently in high-leverage situations. Hambright finished with a 3-1 record and a 4.39 ERA, and he also accounted for 2 of the Yankees’ 12 saves in 1971. It was actually good enough for second-most on the team, as Jack Aker and Lindy McDaniel had 4 saves each. He struck out 14 and walked 10 in 26-2/3 innings, and batters hit just .224 against him. Hambright had 2 at-bats with the Yankees as well. He struck out against Minnesota’s Steve Luebber on August 2 but delivered an RBI single off Kansas City’s Tom Burgmeier on August 17. It was an insurance run in an 8-4 Yankees win. At the end of the season, Hambright was honored as the Clark County (Wash.) Athlete of the Year for 1971.

Hambright during his time playing in Mexico. Source: El Paso Times, June 28, 1977.

Hambright’s success in 1971 did not guarantee him a roster spot with the Yankees in ’72. The fact that the team acquired ace reliever Sparky Lyle didn’t help matters, either. Hambright was sent to Triple-A Syracuse but could not repeat the dominance he had shown previously. He had a 4-2 record and a 3.42 ERA, and he saved just 3 games in 48 relief appearances. His pitching arm was hurting him, and it affected his control, as he walked 43 batters in 71 innings, against 71 strikeouts. He regained his form in 1973 and set an Eastern League record with 22 saves for Double-A West Haven, but he struggled with Syracuse in 1974. Not only did his ERA balloon to 4.86, but he was also one of seven Syracuse ballplayers who were robbed at gunpoint during a road trip in Charleston, W.V. Three armed robbers pushed their way into their hotel room and stole more than $1,000 from the players, who included Jim Hart and Scott McGregor.

The Yankees and Hambright couldn’t see eye-to-eye on his salary or assignment for 1975, and team sold his contract to the Indios de Cuidad Juarez of the Mexican League. He spent three seasons with the team as a starter, and he had some very successful seasons. He won 17 games for Juarez in 1976 and had a 21-12 record and 2.94 ERA in 1977. He threw 22 complete games that season, including 5 shutouts.

The Mexican League wasn’t his ideal scenario, and Juarez was notorious for its long and tiring bus rides to travel to the other cities in the league. There were perks, though. The city’s proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border meannt that Hambright and another American ballplayer could rent an apartment in El Paso, Texas. He was one of the highest-paid Americans in the League, making a reported $3,000 per month. “This is my tenth year in professional baseball. It gets in your blood,” he told El Paso Times writer Mark Leibson in 1977. “Besides the money, I love competition and the thought in my mind was to get back in the big leagues.”

The Mexican League proved to be a difficult place for ballplayers, even one as successful as Hambright, to return to pro ball in the states. He retired after the ’77 season. Hambright had a 30-26 record and 2.88 ERA over 7 seasons in the minors, as well as a 46-36 record and 2.70 ERA in Mexico.

After retiring from baseball, Hambright returned to Washington and operated businesses in the construction industry in the Vancouver area. He is survived by his wife, Rita, and five children.

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