December 9, 2022
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
In the summer of 2020, I started what I had hoped would be a regular feature called “Two tidbits about Terry Puhl.”
I wrote four blog entries within about seven months and then got sidetracked with other projects, but I wanted to resurrect this feature because I still feel like Puhl doesn’t get his proper due in our country’s baseball lore.
Over the past two decades, Canadian baseball fans – like myself – have been spoiled. We’ve been able to watch elite offensive talents like Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, B.C.), Matt Stairs (Fredericton, N.B.), Jason Bay (Trail, B.C.), Justin Morneau (New Westminster, B.C.), Russell Martin (Montreal, Que.) and Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) compete in the big leagues.
I haven’t taken this for granted because when I was a kid in the early 80s, the only Canuck player contributing regularly with the bat in the majors was Puhl, who was a steady outfielder with the Houston Astros.
As a kid, I collected all of Puhl’s baseball cards and savoured any information I could get about the Melville, Sask., native in the pre-Internet and pre-MLB Network days. My fear, however, is that, with the number of Canadian hitters that have excelled in the big leagues in the past 20 years, Puhl’s accomplishments are being forgotten.
My plan with this feature was to present two facts or pieces of trivia about Puhl that I’ve learned in my recent baseball research. My apologies for not delivering more consistently.
Fortunately, Puhl attended the SABR meeting for the Larry Dierker chapter in Houston on November 21 and they shared video of that meeting on YouTube. And from Puhl’s presentation during that meeting, I was able to glean two (OK three) more tidbits about him.
But first here’s a general bio about Puhl:
The Astros offered Puhl a contract after he led his hometown midget squad from Melville, Sask., to a Canadian championship in 1973. He reported to Houston’s Rookie Ball club in Covington, Va., in 1974, where he hit .284 and cemented his status as a bona fide prospect.
Just five days after his 21st birthday, the wide-eyed Saskatchewan native started his first big league game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. So nervous he was shaking, Puhl overcame his jitters to record his first hit and score the game-winning run. He went on to hit .301 in 60 games that season and win himself a starting role in 1978.
His steady offensive and defensive efforts earned him All-Star honours in 1978, when he hit .289 and stole 32 bases. He topped that the following campaign, when he recorded a career-high 172 hits and played 157 games – the entire season – in the outfield without making an error. He was just the fourth player in 124 years to suit up for at least 150 games in a season without a defensive miscue.
After belting a career-high 13 homers in the regular season, Puhl was at his best in the 1980 post-season, hitting .526 in the Astros’ gruelling, five-game National League Championship Series against the eventual World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. A consistent contributor for the Astros over the next decade, the sure-handed Puhl played his final season with the Kansas City Royals in 1991. He finished his 15-season big league career with a .280 batting average, 1,361 hits and 217 stolen bases.
For his efforts, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Astros Hall of Fame this past summer.
Two (OK, three) tidbits about Terry
- At the SABR meeting, Puhl spoke about playing with Nolan Ryan for parts of nine seasons from 1980 to 1988. The two became friends and had a mutal respect for each other on the field. When Puhl was in the outfield during Ryan’s starts, Ryan told him to play shallow. “Nolan used to say, ‘If they hit it over your head, it’s my fault,’” said Puhl. The Canuck outfielder enjoyed that strategy. “I loved that because I loved to take those hits away from Davey Lopes with the Dodgers,” joked Puhl.
- Puhl told SABR members that his favourite player to play against was Montreal Expos five-tool outfielder Andre Dawson. “We’d go up to Montreal and Andre could throw a ball better than anybody,” said Puhl. “You couldn’t take an extra base off him.” Puhl also admired Dawson for his offensive prowess and he asked Expos coach Billy DeMars if he could watch Dawson practice in the cage. So DeMars told him when Dawson was hitting one day and Puhl came out. “I walked out and he’s hitting balls off a tee,” said Puhl. “I watched him hit three balls and I walked off.” Puhl said he quickly realized there wasn’t anything he could learn because Dawson was simply “the strongest human being” he had ever seen.
- Puhl also developed a great respect for Pittsburgh Pirates legendary slugger Willie Stargell. When Puhl was going through a slump at the plate, Stargell, playing for the opposing Pirates, took him aside and said, “Terry, I see something you are doing . . He said, ‘You’re not turning your head enough and looking at the pitcher with both of your eyes.’” Puhl realized Stargell was right and implemented the suggestion against the Pirates the next day. “And the first at bat after I did that, I hit a line drive up the middle and I get down to first base and Willie Stargell is happier than I am,” said Puhl. He never forgot Stargell’s generosity. And when Puhl was in Cooperstown for Nolan Ryan’s induction in 1999, he saw Stargell signing autographs on main street. “There was a lineup for half a block for his autograph and I took my two boys and I said, ‘We are standing in line because you are going to meet Willie Stargell.’ . . . When I got to the front of the line, Willie jumped up and gave me a big hug. And I got to introduce him to my two boys. He was one of the great men in baseball.”