Often overlooked, 1974 NL batting champ had remarkable career
By Terence Moore
Even if we weren't in the middle of Black History Month, there are so many reasons why baseball fans should get to know Ralph Garr along the way to embracing his career.
Never heard of him?
Well, let's start with this: Who holds the Major League record for most hits before the All-Star break, with 149? Is it Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro Suzuki or ... yep, it's Garr, among the forgotten African-American star players of the past, and he chuckled over the phone from his home outside of Houston while recalling his 1974 accomplishment.
"I don't think anybody will ever beat me at that, and a lot of them have had a shot at it," said Garr, 70, who managed all of those hits during the middle of his eight-year run with the Braves, his first Major League team.
Garr was a National League All-Star and won the NL batting title that year. He also nearly captured the NL batting title in 1971 and '72, but he finished second in both seasons.
Did I mention Garr ended his 13 years in the Majors with a batting average of .306? That's higher than that of George Brett, a fellow left-handed hitter who finished his 21 seasons at .305.
I know, I know. Brett is in the Hall of Fame. Garr isn't.
While Brett clobbered 317 home runs, Garr had 75. Brett also was a solid enough fielder at third base to win an American League Gold Glove Award, and Garr struggled so much on defense as a second baseman in the Minor Leagues with the Braves that he was converted to an outfielder. Garr still had fielding issues at his new position, and his shaky ways with his glove and his arm lasted throughout his career, which also included stints with the White Sox and the Angels.
The man known as "Road Runner" had other attributes, though. They began and ended with his legs. Garr was such a blur on the bases that the Braves worked a deal with Warner Bros. to use the images of the company's Road Runner cartoon on the video screen at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium whenever Garr stepped up to the plate. The Braves even played the catchy "beep, beep" sound of the Road Runner whenever Garr reached first base. That's because he always threatened to steal second in a flash.
How fast was Garr?
"I never was timed in the 60-yard dash or the 40-yard dash, but I was timed from home to first," Garr said. "I'd run a 3.85 [seconds] or 3.9, and I was pretty consistent around that. But Mickey Mantle would run a 3.2 or a 3.3, and he had bad legs, with them all taped up. He'd run so fast you couldn't see him. He was unreal. And they had some guys when I played who were real fast, like Mickey Rivers, Bake McBride, Lou Brock. So there were quite a few guys I saw with speed, and it was the same when I was at Grambling. There were three or four guys back then who were faster than me on the same team."
Maybe so, but none of those Grambling speedsters could hit like Garr. In 1967, the native of Monroe, La., led both the Grambling Tigers and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics with a ridiculous .585 batting average. He was featured in Sports Illustrated for his feat. Then, that summer, Garr became a third-round Draft pick of a Braves team that eventually had him batting for years in front of a baseball icon.
Garr still gets emotional speaking about Hank Aaron.
"Hank wasn't a talker, but I've never seen a guy self-educate himself through the years like Henry did," Garr said. "Even though he didn't go to college, you would think he did as time went on. Now he talks like he's got a master's degree or even a doctorate. He's very, very, very intelligent."
Aaron also was very, very, very efficient at ripping home runs. So despite Garr's blazing speed, he finished with only 172 career stolen bases, and he never had more than 35 during a season.
If you're asking why, we're back to Aaron and his homers.
"When you play on a team with Henry Aaron, and you're batting ahead of him, it really wasn't necessary for me to steal a lot of bases, because he could drive you in from first base just as well as he could from second," Garr said.
"After the first year or so, I'd come in to steal a few bases or so, but our team was centered around one of the greatest players in baseball. Nobody had a problem with that, because he was as good of a team player that God ever blew breath into. I mean, as great as he was, he never griped and complained about anything."
There was April 1974, for instance. In the shadows away from the cameras of a national television audience, Aaron told Garr and others in the Braves' dugout at Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium that it was time to end his legendary chase of Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. Aaron thought the whole thing was a distraction to his teammates. He had 755 homers when he retired, but his most famous one occurred on this night after he flicked his quick wrists to make Ruth's 714 second to Aaron's 715.
Garr watched from the dugout.
"I was up on the front step, sort of like, and I was saying [to the people] around me, 'Man, this is gonna be something, you know what I'm saying?'" Garr said. "And then he hit it, and I jumped straight up. Hank was just a great teammate. Man, it's a joy to talk about him. There have been quite a few people I've met in baseball. I've really been blessed, sir."
Garr has been this blessed: In 1984, four years after his retirement, he wanted a job in baseball, and he was hired as a roving scout by the Braves' director of player development at the time -- Hank Aaron.
Thirty-two years later, Garr has the same job.
You may now embrace Garr even more.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.