September 30, 2022
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
He was Pat Gillick’s favourite player.
At least that’s how Willie Upshaw was described in some newspaper articles in the 1980s.
And the description seems appropriate.
After all, it was Gillick who drafted and signed Upshaw for the New York Yankees in 1975 and then again, in the Rule 5 draft, for the Toronto Blue Jays, two years later.
Gillick even mentioned Upshaw in his National Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in Cooperstown in 2011.
“He’s a real class guy. He gave great service to the club,” Gillick told the Canadian Press about Upshaw after he sold the first baseman’s contract to Cleveland in March 1988. “He was a very positive influence.”
Born in 1957 in Blanco, Tex., Upshaw was raised in a family with 14 brothers and sisters. In high school, he was a standout in basketball, football and baseball.
And after the Yankees drafted Upshaw in the sixth round in 1975, on the recommendation of Gillick, then the Yankees scouting director, and scout Dave Yocum, the 18-year-old multisport star was considering going to Texas Lutheran University to play football.
Gillick badly wanted to sign Upshaw, so he enlisted the help of a then rival scout.
“It turned [out] only three scouts knew about Willie, Dave Yocum and I, working for the Yankees, and a scout for the Braves named Al LaMacchia,” Gillick shared during his National Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech. “Luck was on our side and we were able to get Willie in the draft. But Willie wasn’t sure if he wanted to play baseball or football. We knew from his size [6-foot, 185 pounds] he wasn’t going to be a professional football player, so we really believed that baseball was the best thing for him and his family.
“Dave spent three days trying to sign him with the Yankees without any luck. We found out later that Willie was hiding from Dave, so I called Al LaMacchia with the Braves and asked if he would go with me to Blanco, Texas to help convince Willie that baseball was the best for him and his family. Remember, Al and I had been fighting tooth-and-nail over Willie in the draft, but he said he’d be willing to help. We sat in the living room, two scouts from rival teams, and talked with Willie and his dad about the pros and cons, and Willie ended up having a great career in baseball.”
But Upshaw’s tenure in the Yankees’ organization would last just three seasons and by 1977, Gillick was working as vice-president of player personnel with the Blue Jays. That year, the Blue Jays lost 107 games in their first season, which assured them the top pick in the Rule 5 draft. Gillick and Yocum, who had also moved on to the Blue Jays, were delighted to find Upshaw available and they selected him first overall.
[Writer’s note: It was the first of several astute Rule 5 selections Gillick would make for the Blue Jays. In the ensuing years, he picked up George Bell, Kelly Gruber, Jim Acker, Jim Gott and Manuel Lee in the same draft.]
The cost for drafting Upshaw was a modest $25,000, but the Blue Jays were required to carry him on their big league roster for the season. Primarily an outfielder, the 21-year-old Upshaw saw sporadic duty, hitting in every position in the order at least once and finishing the season with a .237 batting average and just one home run in 95 games for the last-place Blue Jays.
Upshaw then spent the entire 1979 season with triple-A Syracuse before splitting 1980 between triple-A and the big league club. In the strike-shortened 1981 season, he played the entire year in the majors but he batted only .171 with four home runs and 10 RBIs in 61 games.
Following the season, the Blue Jays suggested Upshaw focus solely on playing first base. They liked his athleticism, but they didn’t feel he had the arm to be a regular outfielder.
With tips from John Mayberry and countless ground balls hit to him by coaches Jimy Williams and Billy Smith, Upshaw made a smooth transition to first base and he dazzled new manager Bobby Cox – both offensively and defensively – in Grapefruit League action in 1982. So much so, in fact, that the club dealt Mayberry to the Yankees on May 5 and handed the starting first base job to Upshaw.
And Upshaw didn’t disappoint.
He became a staple in the middle of the order and topped the team with 21 home runs and 75 RBIs, which set the stage for his record-breaking 1983 campaign.
With the Blue Jays challenging for the American League East title for the first time, Upshaw thrived. He batted .306 with 27 home runs and established then Blue Jays’ single-season records with 104 RBIs (and also became the first Blue Jay to knock in 100 runs in a season), total bases (298), extra-base hits (60) and slugging percentage (.515). For his efforts, he was named co-winner (along with Lloyd Moseby) of the team’s Labatt’s Player of the Year Award.
His numbers dropped off in 1984 when he suffered a wrist injury, but he still finished with 19 home runs and 84 RBIs. His numbers declined further in 1985 and he missed time due to an abdominal injury, but he returned to homer in the Blue Jays’ American League East-clinching 5-1 win over the Yankees on October 5.
Unfortunately, Upshaw’s production continued to tail off the next two seasons. He belted just nine home runs in 1986 and hit .244 with 15 home runs in 1987 when the Blue Jays lost their final seven games and the division to the Detroit Tigers.
With Upshaw’s numbers in a steady decline and first base prospects Fred McGriff and Cecil Fielder waiting in the wings, the Blue Jays sold Upshaw’s contract to Cleveland on March 25, 1988.
For Gillick, it was one of the toughest decisions of his career.
“We just felt it was time they got a chance to play,” Gillick told the Canadian Press about McGriff and Fielder.
Moseby was devastated.
“He [Upshaw] was the only guy I ran with,” Moseby told Bob Elliott, then of The Ottawa Citizen. “I ate when he ate. I went to bed when he went to bed. It didn’t matter if I missed Sanford and Son, he’d tell me what happened. Today when Willie left the park, it was like part of me leaving.”
Upshaw played one season with Cleveland before signing with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks of the Japan Pacific League. He’d spend parts of two seasons in Japan and belt a career-high 33 home runs in 1989.
Following the 1990 season, he became a roving hitting instructor in the Blue Jays’ organization before he was hired as the Texas Rangers big league hitting coach in 1993. He returned to the Blue Jays as a roving instructor in 1995 prior to being named the club’s big league hitting coach for the 1996 and 1997 seasons.
Since then, Upshaw has held coaching roles in the Cleveland and Giants organizations. But he has spent most of his time close to his Fairfield, Conn., home where he lives with his wife, Cindy. He managed the independent Atlantic League’s Bridgeport Bluefish for two stretches from 1998 to 2000 and then from 2010 to 2014.
Now 65, Upshaw is mostly retired, but he still participates in alumni events for the Blue Jays.
Five things you might not now about Willie Upshaw:
-Most remember Upshaw as a middle-of-the-order, power-hitting first baseman, but he batted leadoff in 19 games for the Blue Jays in 1978. He was also used mostly as a left fielder that season.
-Upshaw seemed to have Yankees closer Goose Gossage’s number. His first major league home run was a game-tying solo shot in the top of the ninth inning off Gossage on May 28, 1978. Two years later, it was Upshaw who ended Gossage’s streak of 29 consecutive batters without a hit when he singled in the bottom of the ninth on September 10. Then on April 24, 1981, Upshaw hit the Blue Jays’ only pinch-hit home run of that season off – you guessed it – Gossage.
-No one thinks of Upshaw as a speedster, but in 1986, he had 23 stolen bases and was only caught five times.
-Upshaw and left-hander Tom Underwood made their Blue Jays’ debut on the same date, April 9, 1978. This made them the first two players to suit up for the club with a last name that started with “U”. Melvin Upton Jr., Richard Urena and Gio Urshela would follow.
-On August 7, 2007, when Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run to break Hank Aaron’s major league record, Upshaw was the first base coach of the Giants, which made him the first to congratulate Bonds after the historic homer.