By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Former Montreal Expos first baseman and pinch hitter Hal Breeden passed away on May 3 at the age of 76.
Veteran author and longtime Expos writer Danny Gallagher was the first to report Breeden’s death.
Breeden died at his home in Leesburg, Ga. No cause of death has been released.
A rare right-handed hitting first baseman who threw left-handed, Breeden played four of his five major league seasons with the Expos from 1972 to 1975 before he became the first foreign player to belt 40 home runs in their first season in the Japan Central League with the Hanshin Tigers in 1976.
After two more seasons in Japan, he returned to his native Georgia where he served as the Lee County sheriff from 1988 to 2008.
It was evident even when Breeden was playing baseball thousands of miles from his birth state that his heart was in Georgia.
“Down there, the air is fresh, there’s no pollution and everything’s green,” Breeden told Montreal Gazette reporter Tim Burke about his off-season home in Leesburg, Ga., in September 1973. “It’s paradise.”
Born in Albany, Ga., on June 28, 1944, Breeden honed his baseball skills with his father and his brother, Danny, later a big league catcher with the Chicago Cubs. It’s clear in articles about Breeden that his father, Noah, who served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army in the Second World War, was his hero.
“Oh, he got all shot up in Germany (during the war), but it didn’t bother him none,” Breeden told Burke in September 1973. “When he came back, he was the one who got us interested in baseball, pitching to us as soon as he came home from work and getting us to shag flies until it became too dark.”
Breeden was a standout on his Little League and American Legion teams and he also starred for his high school squad. His prodigious power caught the eye of his American Legion coach Paul Eames, who helped him land a contract as an 18-year-old with the Milwaukee Braves on April 19, 1963.
In his early years in the Braves’ organization, Breeden suffered from homesickness, but it didn’t impact his performance at the plate. With class-A Yakima in 1964, he batted a whopping .406 with 10 home runs and 58 RBIs in 75 games.
For eight minor league seasons in the Braves’ system, Breeden was a consistent offensive threat. His finest campaign came as a 26-year-old in 1970 when he belted a league-leading 37 home runs and knocked in 116 in 136 games for the triple-A Richmond Braves.
Following that season, the 6-foot-2 slugger was dealt to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Hall of Fame hurler Hoyt Wilhelm. He’d make his major league debut with the Cubs on April 7, 1971, but he proceeded to go just 5-for-36 (.139 batting average) in 23 contests before he was dealt to the Expos, along with Hector Torres, for left-hander Dan McGinn just prior to the 1972 season.
“I didn’t want to come to Montreal when the Cubs traded me last year,” Breeden told the Montreal Gazette in 1973. “Joe Pepitone was having a lot of trouble with the head office and I had a chance to be the regular first baseman. Coming here, I had to go down to the (Peninsula) Whips but Jim Fanning, who I knew well, told me what a great manager Gene Mauch was and I always accepted Jim Fanning’s word . . . Seems now that the Lord had it all planned this way.”
Breeden was leading the triple-A Whips with 18 home runs and a .308 batting average when he was called up by the Expos on July 21, 1972. For the remainder of the season, he pinch hit and played first base against left-handed pitchers for the Expos, batting .230 with three home runs in 42 games.
But 1973 would be his breakout big league campaign. On Mauch’s advice, he shed 25 pounds in the off-season and came to training camp in the best shape of his life. And it paid off.
Breeden was the club’s best pinch hitter in 1973 and was an offensive force against left-handed pitchers. He batted .275 and belted 15 home runs and six triples in just 258 at bats. He also led the team with a .535 slugging percentage and became one of the club’s most popular players in the clubhouse.
He also wowed his teammates with some memorable hitting performances. On May 5 that season, he tied a franchise record with three doubles in the Expos’ 8-6 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Jarry Park. He followed that up by belting pinch-hit home runs in both ends of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves on July 13 to become the first major leaguer to do that since Joe Cronin on June 17, 1943.
Also that season, Breeden had his only two-home run game. It came against the Philadelphia Phillies on August 30, 1973 at Veterans Stadium in an 8-7 loss. For an encore, two games later, in the same series, he clubbed a home run, two triples and a double in an Expos’ 12-0 win. His 12 total bases set an Expos’ record and no major league player was able to duplicate that combination of hits (a home run, two triples and a double) until Seattle Mariners’ third baseman Kyle Seager did it on June 2, 2014.
Unfortunately Breeden’s production dropped off in the ensuing two seasons with the Expos and he signed with the Japan Central League’s Hanshin Tigers in 1976. He proceeded to sock 40 home runs in his first season in Japan and 37 in his second before a knee injury limited him to 17 games in 1978.
Following his playing career, Breeden returned to Georgia. He had a farm outside of Leesburg where he grew peanuts and corn. He was also an avid golfer, fisherman and hunter.
In 1988, he became sheriff of Lee County and he held that post for two decades.
He is survived by his wife Linda, daughter Janis, son Shaun and three grandchildren. You can leave online condolences for his family here.