Professional hitters: Ruppert Jones and Johnny Grubb

Ruppert Jones and Johnny Grubb were key role players on the 1984 Detroit Tigers.

When you look carefully at the 1984 Detroit Tigers, I mean really look at the numbers, one thing jumps out. The bench. That season the team got amazing production from their bench players. In fact, when the Tigers failed to repeat in 1985, it wasn’t a failure of the starting position players or the pitching staff, it was the steep decline in output from the bench players.

There were several players who made the bench great that year, but two of the most prominent were corner outfielders, both left-handed batters who had been All-Stars earlier in their careers.

This is the sixth installment of our series about the players of the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers. We’re looking at the stars and the role players, the well-known and the somewhat forgotten. We hope you enjoy this series, please share your memories of that season in the comments section.

The Gentleman from Virginia

Broadcaster Ernie Harwell, himself a southerner, called Johnny Grubb “The Gentleman from Virginia,” and that he was. Grubb was always a bit of an odd sight on a ballfield: looking more like an accountant than a ballplayer, a quiet figure among the loud, tobacco-chewing characters associated with the game.

Anyone who ever saw Grubb hit a baseball will never forget it. He had one of the most perfect swings, a smooth, level swing that frequently met the baseball with authority. His first major league manager, Don Zimmer said, “He hits the ball and it makes that special sound.”

After being drafted a few times and deciding not to turn professional, Grubb finally agreed to a contract withe Padres in 1971 after finishing his college eligibility. Johnny decided early on to learn as much as he could, if he was going to be a professional baseball player, he figured he better play as much baseball as he could. His first two years he played in the Mexican Winter League after completing his minor league seasons. He played for Duke Snider in the Padres system, and he blossomed as he faced good pitching. By 1973 he was in the Padres’ outfield where he used that nice level left-handed swing to hit .311 in 113 games. Grubb finished sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. The following year he made the All-Star team as a center fielder. In all he spent five seasons with lowly San Diego before they traded him to Cleveland during the 1976 winter meetings for Silent George Hendrick.

Thus started the pattern of Grubb’s travels from bad team to bad team. Johnny hit .301 in his first season with the Tribe playing under Frank Robinson, but he was bit by the injury bug and was traded again the following year, this time to baseball’s Siberia, the Texas Rangers.

Grubb played for four managers in five years in Texas, including his old pal Don Zimmer, but the team was always mediocre and Johnny found himself in and out of the lineup depending on who was writing out the scorecard. He struggled to get comfortable in Texas and never had a full year to prove his worth. But his fortunes would change when Detroit general manager Jim Campbell traded pitcher Dave Tobik to get him late in spring training in 1983.

Many in the Tigers’ organization liked Johnny Grubb. Manager Sparky Anderson remembered him from his days as skipper of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s when Johnny was with San Diego. Campbell and chief scout Bill Lajoie liked Grubb’s ability to hit righthanded pitching and they thought his swing would be perfect in Tiger Stadium with the short porch. They were proved correct.

In his five years wearing the Old English D, Grubb averaged about 70 games and 200 plate appearance per season. About 80 percent of his at-bats came against right-handed pitching, as a platoon partner with Larry Herndon or some other player, as a DH, or as a pinch-hitter. In his career, the Virginian with the spectacles hit .285 with 91 home runs off righties and .235 with eight homers against lefties. He batted .272 with seven pinch-hit homers for Detroit. He was also blessed with a discerning eye, he had a career .366 on-base percentage.

Always in great shape and ready to play, Grubb was a favorite of Sparky Anderson. Similar to other veteran bench players Dave Bergman and Ruppert Jones, Grubb came to the park ready to do whatever needed to be done to help the team. In 1984 he had one of his best seasons for the team.

Grubb’s biggest moment in the regular season came against the Tigers’ chief rival, the Blue Jays. On September 8 at Exhibition Stadium, Grubb hit not one but two homers off Luis Leal to pace Detroit’s 10-4 shellacking of Toronto. A few days later the Tigers clinched the division title.

The height of Grubb’s tenure with the Tigers, and possibly the biggest hit of his career, came in the playoffs in a tense situation. In typical Grubb fashion, he handled the moment with aplomb and humility.

In Game Two of the AL Championship Series, the Tigers squandered a three-run lead and went into extra innings against the plucky Royals. Neither team scored in the tenth, and KC had their ace closer Dan Quisenberry on the hill. Lance Parrish lined a single to left to open the 11th. Sparky ordered Darrell Evans to lay down a sacrifice bunt, which catcher Don Slaught misplayed into an error, putting runners at first and second with no outs. Ruppert Jones followed with another bunt, this one fielded cleanly by Quisenberry who forced Ruppert at first. Now Detroit had runners at second and third with one out. Up stepped Grubb with first base open.

With Chet Lemon on deck, the Royals elected to pitch to Grubb. Initially it seemed wise, as Quisenberry worked Johnny into an 0-2 hole. But on a 1-2 count, the submarine reliever tried to sneak a fastball past Grubb, who laced the pitch into the right field corner for a two-run double. The Tigers closed the game out for a 5-3 victory and a 2 games to none lead in the series. Grubb had one hit in four appearances in the World Series win over his former team, the Padres. After his game-winning hit against the Royals, Harwell interviewed him on the field.

“I’m happy to be part of the team and to have a chance to play with these guys,” Grubb said in typical understated fashion.

Three years later when the Tigers posted baseball’s best record, Grubb was again a force in the playoffs, banging out four hits in just seven trips to the plate in the AL Championship Series against the Twins. In his final major league game, Game Five of that playoff series, Grubb had two hits, including a line drive off future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven.

The Saga of Rooftop Jones

The career of Ruppert Jones is punctuated by stops and starts, highs and lows, and notions of “what might have been?” When he was right, when he was healthy, Jones was a superior athlete, a five-tool player and a two-time All-Star, but too often he was hampered by injury and inconsistency. Still, he enjoyed a twelve-year career highlighted by his one season as a champion with the Detroit Tigers.

Jones was an All-Star for the Padres in 1982 but struggled in 1983, a season of streaks and slumps. The Padres released him in the last wave of roster moves in the spring of 1984. He was 29 years old and out of work. A week later, only three days after Jack Morris tossed a no-hitter against the White Sox in the fourth game of the season, Detroit general manager Bill Lajoie signed Jones to a minor league contract. A former scout, Lajoie was sure there was some pop left in Ruppert’s bat.

While the Tigers were bolting out to a 35-5 start, Jones was in Double-A playing for Evansville. He was clearly too good for the league, but he waited for a chance to show what he could do with the big club. The call came on June 6th during a crucial series against the Blue Jays at Tiger Stadium. It was the same series where Dave Bergman battled for 14 pitches before homering off Roy Lee Jackson to make the Tigers winners. Jones had a single in his first game on June 6th, and the next night he hit a three -run homer in the sixth inning off Jim Clancy that proved to be the game-winner. Welcome to Detroit, Ruppert!

Jones hit five homers in his first four weeks with the Tigers, three of them game-winners. In a game later in June against the Brewers, Jones hit a home run onto the right field roof. In Chicago a week later he hit a ball onto the roof at Comiskey Park. Fans started calling him “Rooftop Jones.”

His power display earned Jones a role as the lefthanded portion of a platoon with Larry Herndon in left field. Jones batted .284 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs in only 79 games for Detroit as the team cruised to the division title. For the first time in his career, Ruppert was on a playoff team.

Ruppert Jones was originally drafted into baseball by the Royals in the 1973 amateur draft in the third round. He was a thick, muscular outfielder from southern California, a promising prospect. But the Royals had to make a decision a few years later when the expansion draft came about. Each American League team could protect 15 players on their major league roster and three more in each ensuing round. The Seattle Mariners, picking first, made Jones the #1 overall selection. The young outfielder was going to a brand new team in the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle was thirsty for big league baseball and Jones became their first superstar. In 1977 he became the first player to represent the Mariners in the All-Star Game, and the 22-year old had a fine season. He batted .263 in 160 games with 26 doubles, eight triples, 24 homers, 76 RBIs, and 13 stolen bases. His #9 jersey was one of the first that Mariners fans bought in the early days of the franchise when they had little to cheer about.

Jones started an up-and-down cycle in 1978 when he slumped to .235 with only six home runs in his second season for the M’s. He came back in 1979 and had what would be the best season of his career: 109 runs scored, 29 doubles, nine triples, 21 homers, 78 RBIs, 33 stolen bases, and a 799 OPS in 162 games. At that time, Jones was a center fielder, fast on the artificial turf of Seattle’s Kingdome. But his time in a Mariner uniform was coming to an end.

Following the rule of trading a player at his peak, Seattle packaged Jones in a six-player deal with the Yankees after the 1979 season. The Mariners received catcher Jerry Narron, pitchers Jim Beattie and Rick Anderson, and outfielder Juan Beniquez.

Jones was thrilled to be going to a winning team, and a team that he had idolized as a young man growing up in California, the Yankees. The team wanted Jones to fill the void in center left by the departure of Mickey Rivers, which meant Ruppert would play between two volatile tempers: Reggie Jackson and Lou Piniella. But his one season in The Bronx proved to be a messy one. First, Jones started out slowly at the plate and felt the wrath of team owner George Steinbrenner. Then, he was sidelined for six weeks with a stomach ailment related to a preior appendectomy. When he returned he was weak and only hit ,223 with nine homers in half a season for his new team. His next move would be a quick exit from New York.

Late in spring training in 1981, the Yankees traded Jones to San Diego for Jerry Mumphrey and a few others. Ruppert was disappointed, but true to his nature, he took a positive approach and set out to have a comeback year in sunny San Diego. That’s what he did, as he made the All-Star team for the second time in 1982 after a hot first half. He ended the year with 12 home runs, 18 stolen bases, and a .283 batting average. His second half was slowed by an ankle injury. He spent one more year in San Diego before we catch up with his story that landed him in Detroit’s clutches.

Sparky Anderson loved guys like Ruppert Jones, multi-faceted veterans who stayed ready to play when they were called upon to perform. The Tigers included Jones on their postseason roster in 1984, hoping to find chances for his lefthanded bat to do damage. Those opportunities didn’t materialize much, so Ruppert only saw action in four games, basically splitting time with Herndon. Jones went 0-for-8 with a walk.

The Ruppert Jones Baseball Tour continued in 1985 when he became a free agent and accepted an offer from the Angels that returned him to southern California. In typical yo-yo fashion, Ruppert rebounded with the Angels, hitting 21 homers and driving in 67 runs in 121 games as designated hitter and corner outfielder. He served in a similar role the next two years for the Halos, seeing action in the 1986 AL Playoffs where he started five games and had three hits. Jones played his last major league game in 1987 having hit 147 homers and batted .250 in 1,331 games.