If you ever saw Steve Kemp swing a bat, you’d never forget it. The left-handed slugger twisted himself so much in his follow through that his torso would spin toward the first base line, his back knee would scrape the ground, and the bat would slap between the “3” and the “3” of his uniform number. If he flailed violently and missed, Kemp would look like an upside down question mark.
But as interesting as Kemp was when he failed to make contact, he was also very successful when he did connect his lumber with the baseball. In five seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Kemp averaged 22 homers and more than 100 runs batted in per 162 games played. At a time when the Bengals were rebuilding, he was a popular All-Star left fielder, whose swing was made for Tiger Stadium’s short right field porch.
Kemp was the #1 selection in the 1976 amateur draft, the Tigs consolation prize for having lost a franchise record 102 games the previous season. A senior at the University of Southern California when he was drafted, Kemp had played for legendary coach Rod Dedeaux in college. Kemp was part of the 1974 NCAA Championship team – the fifth straight title for the Trojans. In his college career, Kemp hit over .330 for USC and won a Gold Medal in 1974 for the U.S. team at the World Championships. He was compared favorably to Fred Lynn, who also played outfield for Dedeaux at USC in the early 1970s.
After just one season in the minor leagues, splitting time with the Montgomery Rebels and the Evansville Triplets (where he blasted enemy hurlers to the tune of a .386 average), Kemp made the Tigers roster out of spring training in 1977. After pinch-hitting on opening day against the Kansas City Royals, Kemp was inserted into left field as a starter in the second game of the season. He got his first hit, and three days later his three-run homer helped fuel Detroit to their first victory of the ’77 season. The 22-year old was in the lineup pretty much the rest of the season, playing in 151 games and hitting 18 homers as a rookie. He improved his batting average the next season and impressed observers by his ability to draw more walks than strikeouts.
“He’s a good run producer,” teammate Rusty Staub noted. “When we get a guy or two on, Steve seems to be able to bear down and get [them] across the plate.”
Kemp was a productive hitter – driving in 88 runs his first season and 79 more in his sophomore campaign. But in 1979 he blossomed in what was to be his finest major league season. That year, betting third in the lineup in front of Staub, Kemp hit .318 with 26 homers and 105 RBI’s. After hitting over .400 in April and .340 in May, Kemp caught the attention of folks around the American League. One admirer was future Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles.
“Kemp has the perfect approach at the plate – he’s patient but he attacks the ball when it’s where he wants it,” Weaver told The Sporting News.
Kemp was named an All-Star in 1979, and with other young players like Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Lance Parrish, and Jason Thompson, (all like Kemp – under the age of 25), the future looked bright for the Tigers. In 1980, Kemp played his role in the middle of the Tiger lineup for Sparky Anderson, driving in 101 runs and hitting 21 homers. In ’81, when a strike shortened the season and the Tigers challenged for a post-season spot into the final Saturday of the schedule, Kemp had another solid season, posting a .389 on-base percentage (70 walks and only 48 K’s in 105 games). By this time, Kirk Gibson had joined the cast of young Tigers in the lineup in Motown.
But just when the team seemed poised to become a title contender with Kemp as a key cog, the 27-year old was traded to the Chicago White Sox. The deal, which brought center fielder Chet Lemon to Detroit, was unpopular with most fans at the time, but many inside baseball saw it as a shrewd deal by Tiger GM Jim Campbell and his protégé Bill Lajoie, Kemp’s power had been declining for two years, and the addition of Lemon gave the team one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. In addition, Kemp was due to become a free agent after the ’82 season, and Campbell rarely signed his own players after they declared free agency. It proved to be a perfectly timed swap.
Kemp played one season in Chicago, declared free agency, and inked a five-year, $5.4 million deal with the New York Yankees. In theory, Kemp’s powerful swing should have been a great match for the short right field seats at Yankee Stadium, but an injury he suffered just a few weeks into his Yankee tenure derailed any chance of that. While shagging balls during batting practice, Kemp was hit in his left eye by a line drive off the bat of a teammate. He was never the same.
“I lost vision in my left eye, and that made it a lot more difficult. I lost depth perception, and it hampered my ability to do the things I did well,” Kemp told MLive.com in 2011.
Kemp hit just 19 homers in parts of two seasons with the Bombers, and then he spent two “hanging-on” years with the Pittsburgh Pirates and part of a season with the Texas Rangers before retiring in 1988. The fact was, no major league teams wanted him.
The former All-Star played on season in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association, a league that played in Florida and whose teams were stocked with over-the-hill ex-major leaguers.
Kemp lives in southern California and works in finance. He has made a few appearances back in Detroit, which he considers his baseball home. He was on the field for the post-game celebration after the last game at Tiger Stadium in 1999, and he has popped up at Tigers Fantasy Camp at least once.