By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Former Montreal Expos outfielder Larry Biittner died on Sunday at the age of 75.
The news of his death was first reported on the Baseball Player Passings Facebook page by family friend Dan Pritchard on Sunday morning.
The Des Moines Register reported that Biittner died of cancer.
Most will recall Biittner as one of the National League’s best pinch-hitters who became a fan favourite in his five seasons with the Chicago Cubs from 1976 to 1980. But it was with the Expos in 1975 that the left-handed hitting Iowa native enjoyed his breakout campaign.
In that season, playing predominantly right field for manager Gene Mauch, Biittner set career-bests with a .315 batting average, a .376 on-base percentage and five triples in 121 games.
Born in Pochahontas, Iowa in 1946, Biittner was one of 12 children in his family. He was a multi-sport athlete in high school, excelling in baseball, basketball and track.
Following his senior year, he earned a basketball scholarship to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He went there for one year before transferring to Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa when he was offered a combined basketball and baseball scholarship.
As a teen, Biittner was a dominant left-handed pitcher who also excelled at the plate. His skills inspired the Washington Senators to select him in the 10th round of the 1968 MLB draft.
After observing him more closely, the Senators believed Biittner was a better hitter than pitcher and they decided to employ him at first base and in the outfield. In 1970, he batted .325 in 102 games with the double-A Pittsfield Senators which earned him a brief big league call-up that July.
Senators manager Ted Williams liked what he saw in the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Biittner, but he felt the young outfielder, who had only clubbed 11 home runs in three minor league seasons, should be hitting more round-trippers. Williams worked with Biittner on his power stroke, but he ultimately decided that that young outfielder was better off as a contact hitter.
“He doesn’t have the swing to be a home run hitter,” Williams told The Sporting News. “Contact is his strength. He hits the ball where it’s pitched. To try to change him would be stupid.”
When the Senators franchise shifted to Texas in 1972, Biittner went with them and batted .252 in 83 games with the Rangers in 1973 before he was dealt to the Expos that December for veteran right-hander Pat Jarvis.
Expos GM Jim Fanning made the deal. Like Biittner, Fanning was a Buena Vista College alum. He had scouted Biittner in 1968 for the Atlanta Braves.
“Biittner is a good triple-A ballplayer with a better-than-average chance of being a major leaguer,” Fanning told The Sporting News in January 1974. “He’s an established player.”
Despite hitting well in his first spring with the Expos, Biittner was assigned to triple-A Memphis where he became the team’s top hitter, batting .327 in 94 games.
“Biittner is a left-handed hitter who hits to all fields,” Memphis manager Karl Kuehl told the Montreal Gazette in June 1974. “He hits equally well against left and right-handed pitchers. There are no complaints about his fielding. He can play first base or in the outfield and quite frankly, I believe that Biittner belongs in the major leagues.”
The Expos, whose offence was inconsistent that season, eventually heeded Kuehl’s advice and called Biittner up on July 30. The then 28-year-old outfielder said he’d be open to any role with the big league club.
“Anything’s fine, as long as I get here,” Biittner told The Montreal Star after his promotion.
He proceeded to bat .269 in 18 games down the stretch for the Expos.
But Biittner came to Expos camp in 1975 determined to win one of the starting outfield positions. He swung a hot bat in spring training and that carried over into the regular season when he batted .350 in the first half and saw regular action in the outfield.
“He has forced me to play him much more than we planned,” Mauch told the Montreal Gazette about Biittner for their July 15 edition.
On September 6 that season, Biittner was batting .325 when Montreal Gazette baseball scribe Ian MacDonald penned a feature article about him.
“It’s been very satisfying,” Biittner told MacDonald of his 1975 season to that point. “It’s been very rewarding.”
Biittner told MacDonald that he was finally feeling comfortable with the type of hitter he was.
“Ever since I was a kid, it has been instilled in me just to make solid contact, to hit the ball hard and to hit the ball where it’s pitched. You never try to hit over your abilities,” he told MacDonald.
But he also admitted his approach had probably cost him playing time.
“I guess that has hurt me more than anything else through the years, as far as playing every day is concerned,” added Biittner. “Managers, front office people and scouts look at me and can’t understand why I don’t hit the long ball.”
Biittner completed the 1975 season with a career-high .315 batting average, but with just three home runs in 121 games. Still, he believed his numbers were worthy of a raise and held out in spring training in 1976. He eventually received a $10,000 increase in salary.
Unfortunately, Biittner found himself on the bench early in the 1976 season, as new Expos manager Karl Kuehl was focused on playing young prospects Ellis Valentine, Bombo Rivera and Gary Carter in the outfield. Biittner was hitting just .188 in 11 games when he was dealt, along with right-hander Steve Renko, to the Cubs for slugger Andre Thornton on May 17.
Biittner welcomed the trade.
“I was not happy at all,” Biittner told the Montreal Gazette after the trade about his lack of playing time with the Expos early that season. “It looks like the outfield was all set and there was no place for me.
“I’m not surprised. Let’s face it, not only didn’t I play on the last road trip, but I didn’t even get to pinch hit. I like the idea of going to Chicago. I’ll probably play first base because their outfield is set. Why I wasn’t playing after the year I had last season is a mystery to me. I asked Karl [Kuehl] and he just said that was the way he was doing things.”
After joining the Cubs, Biittner quickly became a fan favourite.
In 1977, he played in a career-high 138 games and hit .298 with 12 home runs and 62 RBIs. He played in 100 or more games in each of the next three seasons with the Cubs, but he found himself being used more and more as a pinch-hitter
Following the 1980 campaign, he became the first free agent ever signed by the Cincinnati Reds who used him primarily as a pinch-hitter before he spent his final season with the Texas Rangers in a similar role in 1983.
In total, in 1,217 major league games over parts of 14 seasons, Biittner hit .273 and had 861 hits.
According to his SABR bio, after his playing career, Biittner came back to Chicago and worked as a commodity trader on the floor of the Mercantile Exchange. He also worked in real estate, before moving back to his hometown of Pochahontas in 1990 to manage a farm with his ex-brother in law.
In recent years, he had been active in MLB alumni events, but he rarely watched baseball.
“I don’t want much baseball at all,” Biittner said in an interview on The Moonlight Graham Show podcast in November. “I’ve talked to guys about this before – you know, other players – and the game has gone a different way . . . Everybody’s talking about launch angles and this and that. Hell, when I played no one knew what a launch angle was. When we played, it was when you see the ball, you hit it . . . To me, everything is stats. It’s almost like the game is run by computer geeks.”