John Wockenfuss, the detroit The Tigers player who could play in virtually any position and had a batting stance like no one else died on Friday.
He was 73 years old.
Wockenfuss, billed as one of the most talented Delaware athletes of all time, spent parts of 10 seasons with the Tigers and rose from a little-used reserve catcher to a key hitter and utility player. He had a hand in a major trade that propelled the team’s title in 1984 and eventually made it through the organization’s minor leagues.
His offense improved from .222 and three home runs in 1976 to .274 and nine home runs in 1977. Wockenfuss, also known as “Fuss” or “Johnny B.”, began playing in the outfield the following season as his playing time. he continued to climb.
Wockenfuss’ best season was 1980, in which he reached or tied career records for games (126), home runs (16), RBIs (65) and OPS (0.839) – although he hit 15 homers in just 87 games in previous season. In addition to catching and playing in the outfield, he was a designated hitter, third baseman, first baseman, and one of the best hitters on the team in the early 1980s.
In 12 total seasons and 2,072 career hits (795 games), he hit .262 with 86 home runs and walked (277) almost as often as he hit (278).
Despite being traded to the Tigers ahead of a race to the 1984 World Series, Wockenfuss played an important role in building this legendary team.
The Free Press reported in March 1984 that he was dissatisfied with his salary and role – he scored seven game-winning RBIs and played five different positions in 92 games for the Tigers in 1983.
Wockenfuss told reporters that he won $200,000 in 1983 and was not happy with how his self-represented dealings with the Tigers turned out.
“As soon as I signed, they started giving these clowns $800,000,” Wockenfuss said ahead of the 1984 season.
He identified the Philadelphia Phillies, because of their proximity to his home in Delaware, as a dream destination. Within weeks, Wockenfuss and Glenn Wilson were traded for southpaw Willie Hernandez – who would go on to win the 1984 Cy Young and American League MVP awards as Tiger Ace – and first baseman Dave Bergman.
Hernandez and Bergman were instrumental in the World Series title, while Wockenfuss remained in a part-time role with the Phillies and continued to collect (0.289/0.390/0.417 and six home runs in 86 games). But in 1985, in his 36-year season, Wockenfuss saw his playing time decrease and his batting average drop below 0.200 for the first time since his rookie year.
After two seasons in Philadelphia, he retired, but not before regretting parts of his time there and pointing out that he was one of the team’s best hitters against southpaws.
“(The Phillies) put me in there as a bullpen catcher (in 1985), carrying buckets of balls to the bullpen,” he told reporters in Florida. “They made me feel like a fool. Like a bum.”
But Wockenfuss will be remembered for his versatility, his hitting and, of course, his batting style.
He changed his stance before the 1977 season, standing close to the back edge of the hitter’s box, bringing his feet together and tucking his front shoulder so close to his chin that he appeared to be turning his back on the pitcher.
Wockenfuss credits the change for its improved performance; from 1977 onwards, he posted above-average OPSes with the Tigers every season (except for one 1981 season, when he hit an unusual .215 in 70 games).
Originally drafted as a pitcher by the then Washington Senators in 1967, Wockenfuss was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in June 1973, before being traded to the Tigers six months later.
After managing the Tigers’ minor league clubs in Lakeland, Florida; Glens Falls, New York and Toledo, Ohio, he managed to Pittsburgh Pirate organization. In 1994, back problems and surgeries forced him to retire from the MLB, and he began coaching and coaching the independent league.
Wockenfuss was battling dementia before his death.
Tyler Davis can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @TDavisFreep.
This article originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press: John Wockenfuss: Ex-Detroit Tigers Catcher, Utility Dies at 73