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Remembering the career of Steve Hovley

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One crazy orbit.

Seattle Pilots v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images

My wife and I were recently vacationing close to where Steve Hovley resides. I requested an interview but never heard back from him. Some former players love talking about their playing days. Others have moved on, and I respect that.

Hovley is reported to be one of those guys who has moved on and that should come as no surprise, as Hovley was always a little different. I don’t mean different in a bad way. Hovley would often visit art museums in the cities where he was playing. He would read Nietzsche while sitting on the bench. I don’t read any Nietzsche, but like Hovley, if I’m in a city or more than two days, I too seek out the art museums. There are many terrific museums in the states. The Art Institute in Chicago to me, is the gold standard. The Cleveland Museum of Art isn’t far behind, and it’s free to visit. There are several small galleries around the country that would surprise you. One day I was passing through Valparaiso, Indiana and stopped at the university to visit their small gallery. It was a terrific mix of national and regional art. It too was free of charge, but I would have gladly paid admission. The Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines, Iowa houses a small gallery that is fabulous. Hoyt Sherman was the youngest brother of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman and a fascinating character in his own right. If you appreciate fine art, I suggest you take in these two small gems.

In Hovley’s playing days (1969-1973) uniformity and conformity was valued. Due to his eccentricities, Hovley acquired a couple of unusual nicknames: “Tennis ball head”, for his often-unruly mop, and “Orbit”, a moniker given to him because he was “way out”.

Hovley attended Stanford University and played baseball for the Indians (now the Cardinal). The California Angels took him in the 35th round of the 1968 draft. The 1968 draft produced a number of future Royals including Ken Brett, Jim Lyttle, Billy Harris, Kurt Bevacqua, Norm Angelini and Hovley.

He spent his first two seasons in the Angels minor league system with stops at San Jose and Seattle of the PCL. The expansion Seattle Pilots selected Hovley with the 35th pick of the 1968 expansion draft. He spent the first two months of the 1969 season on loan to the Baltimore Orioles AAA team in Rochester, before making his big-league debut on June 29, 1969. Hovley busted out of the gate strong, hitting .371 in his first ten games. Fittingly, he hit his first Major League home run against the Royals in a July 4 game at Municipal, an eighth inning solo shot off Dick Drago, in a game won by the Royals by the score of 3-2.

Hovley’s roommate with the Pilots, Jim Bouton (a baseball freethinker in his own right), bought the ball from the kid in the stands who caught it. Bouton asked Hovley if he wanted the ball, which Hovley declined. Bouton then said, “the year Hovley hits 62, that ball will be my most valuable possession”. Many thought Hovley had the equipment to be a very solid player, maybe even a star.

In his rookie season in 1969, he had 329 at-bats and slashed a very respectable .277/.338/.365. His 91 hits were sixth-best on the team even though he got far fewer at-bats than the five players in front on him. Not bad work for a 24-year-old.

The Pilots of course, were a one-year wonder in Seattle, falling into bankruptcy and moving to Milwaukee just before the 1970 season kicked off. The team, renamed the Brewers, was owned by a milquetoast Milwaukee car dealer named Allen Huber “Bud” Selig, who years later somehow found himself in the baseball commissioner’s chair.

The move didn’t bother Hovley as he picked up right where he left off. Hovley collected three hits in the season opener and was hitting over .300 as late as May 16 before cooling off. On June 11, the Brewers traded Hovley to the Oakland A’s for Al Downing and Tito Francona. Hovley hit a solid .270 before the All-Star break but slumped badly in the second half with the A’s, only hitting .164 over the final 49 games. The swoon dropped his season slash to .243/.310/.285. Relegated to part time duty with the powerful A’s, Hovley only saw action in 24 games in 1971, spending most of the season at AAA Iowa, where he hit .337.

In November of 1971, the Royals selected Hovley from the A’s in the Rule 5 draft. Hovley spent two seasons in Kansas City, 1972 and 1973, appearing in 105 and 104 games, respectively. His best year for the Royals came in 1972 when he slashed .270/.351/.352 in 196 at bats.

Those 62 home runs in one season? Never happened. Hovley hit eight over his five-year career with the last one coming on September 8, 1973 against his original team, the Angels.

The Royals sold Hovley to Baltimore after the 1973 season. He missed six weeks early in the year to injury, and was then assigned to their AAA team, still in Rochester, the same place he had been five years before. After only hitting .203 in 49 games, he called it quits and moved back to his home state of California where he became a plumber.

Former roommate Bouton said about Hovley being a plumber, “I can understand that. Steve is one of the few people left in America who still gets pleasure and satisfaction from doing a good day’s work, apart from the title that comes with it.”

Hovley reached something of cult status thanks to Bouton’s book “Ball Four”. When asked about the Pilots, Hovley said, “the way I like to think of the Seattle Pilots is like the upside-down postage stamp. The most important one is the one they screwed up.”

Another one of his pearls was this classic: “Religion is like baseball: great game, bad owners.”

To many Royals fans, Steve Hovley is just another name. The name of a guy who spent a short time patrolling the outfield. The reality is, Hovley is more than that. He’s a normal guy who reached the highest level of his sport and when it was over, he seamlessly moved onto the next phase of his life. Baseball could use more Steve Hovley’s.