Giants saddened by death of former All-Star Hart

Giants saddened by death of former All-Star Hart

SAN FRANCISCO -- Jim Ray Hart, one of the most prominent members of the talent-laden yet title-less Giants teams of the 1960s, died Thursday following a long illness in Acampo, Calif., the club announced. He was 74.

Hart played mostly third base for the Giants from 1963-73 before ending his career as a designated hitter with the Yankees in 1973-74. He hit 31 home runs during 1964, his first full Major League season, to establish a Giants franchise rookie record that still stands.

"He was another Giant product during that era of unbelievable players," said former catcher Jack Hiatt, a fixture in San Francisco's scouting and player development departments.

Hart's career stats

Two traits of Hart's were universally recognized.

First, he could hit a baseball ferociously.

Hiatt described the aural experience of being in Hart's general vicinity when he took batting practice.

"You could have your back turned and not see the hitter, and when that ball came off Jimmy Ray's bat, it made a different sound," Hiatt said. "He hit the ball extremely hard. He hit a home run off of [Sandy] Koufax in Los Angeles that almost knocked the foul pole down."

Former outfielder Ken Henderson marveled at the strength Hart displayed as he wielded his imposing 36-inch, 35-ounce bat. Hart, who averaged 28 home runs and 89 RBIs per season from 1964-68, often was overshadowed by future Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. But teammates appreciated his talent.

"I think he'll always be remembered as one of the best players ever in that organization and certainly as one of the best hitters who ever played there. No question about it," Henderson said of Hart, a North Carolina native who recorded a .278 career batting average with 170 homers. "He would turn on the ball and hit these missiles, these rockets. If he ever hit one directly at the third baseman, he'd take his head off."

Hart's reputation preceded him in unfortunate fashion. In his second Major League game, the nightcap of a doubleheader against St. Louis at Candlestick Park, Cardinals ace Bob Gibson hit him with a pitch and broke his shoulder. According to Hiatt, Gibson had heard Hart was a budding young hitter.

"That's all it took for Gibson to knock him down," Hiatt said.

Hart's demeanor also left an enduring impression. He was remembered as being genial but quiet, as well as a loner.

"Jimmy Ray never tooted his own horn," Hiatt said. "He stayed away from all publicity. He never talked. But when he said something, he always had a grin."

Henderson recalled Hart inviting him to dinner after an afternoon game in St. Louis -- a surprising act, since to that point they hadn't socialized together. They talked late into the night.

"It was kind of one of the most revealing, important times that I had, to really understand Jim Ray's roots and what he was all about," Henderson said. "I got to know him as a man. And he was a sweetheart of a man."

"Everyone in the Giants organization is deeply saddened by the news of Jim's passing," Giants president and chief executive officer Larry Baer said in a statement Friday. "Our condolences go out to the Hart family for their tremendous loss and we extend our thoughts to Jim's teammates, his friends, and to all those touched by his passing."

Chris Haft has covered the Giants since 2005, and for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.