Over the years I’ve become fascinated with the history of the Kansas City Athletics. I’m not sure why, other than geographical relation. The teams themselves were mostly terrible. They never had a winning record in their 13-year stay in the city. The fans’ relationship with the team was often strained, first by numerous lopsided trades made with the Yankees and later by the contentious relationship with owner Charlie O. Finley. The team did sport some excellent and interesting players over the years, guys like Bob Cerv, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Enos Slaughter, Rocky Colavito, and Roger Maris, briefly. They also witnessed one season of Elmer Valo, whose last name was pronounced voll-oh.
Valo was born Imrich Valo in Rybnik, Czechoslovakia on March 5, 1921. 1921 would not have been a great year to have been born in Eastern Europe. Fortunately for Valo, his parents immigrated to the United States when he was six and took up residence in Palmerton, Pennsylvania.
Blessed with speed and a certain bravado, Valo was signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as a free agent before the 1938 season. He spent parts of the first three seasons in the A’s minor league system where he did nothing but hit, to the tune of a combined .347.
In 1940, his .364 average won the Interstate League batting title while playing for the Wilmington Blue Rocks. That earned him a late-season callup to the Athletics, where he made his debut at the age of 19. He played all or parts of the next 12 seasons in Philadelphia, interrupted by a two-year stint in the military which robbed him of two prime years in 1944 and 1945. Funny how decisions can change a life. Imagine if Valo’s family had not immigrated, he probably would have never heard of American baseball, and would he have survived the war years?
Valo earned a reputation as a hustling, hard-nosed player, a solid outfielder who often crashed into walls chasing fly balls. He was dubbed the American League version of Pete Reiser, the talented Brooklyn outfielder whose career was cut short by many wall-induced interruptions. Valo was one of the more exciting young players in baseball and was thus featured on the cover of the very first edition of Baseball Digest in August of 1942.
Like many of his contemporaries, Valo was a tough guy. During the 1947 season, with the Athletics trying to stay in contention, Valo was beaned by Sid Hudson and missed three weeks of action. In his first game back, on September 3, he made a spectacular catch against the scoreboard at Shibe Park to preserve Bill McCahan’s no-hitter. At the plate, Valo went 2-for-4 and drove in two runs.
In 1948, the Athletics were once again winning and contending. Valo, a rightfielder, had emerged as their best player and leader, but he kept smashing into outfield walls. A series of wall collisions left him with two broken ribs. Valo taped himself up and kept playing until the pain became so bad, he could barely grip a bat. He missed three weeks of action, during which the Athletics went 16-25. In those days, players played through pain out of fear of losing their place on the roster. No one wanted to get Pipped. There were only 16 teams in those days (compared to 30 today) and guys fought hard to get and keep those jobs.
In April of 1953, Valo crashed into a wall in Cleveland and tore a thigh muscle. He tried playing through the injury, which was impossible. This injury limited him to just 50 games that season and changed the trajectory of his career, turning him into a part-time player and pinch hitter for the next two seasons.
The first time Valo came to my attention was a couple of years ago when I picked up some 1956 baseball cards. Valo’s card has him jumping into a wall to make a catch.
Finally healed from his various injuries, Valo moved with the Athletics to Kansas City, where he played in 112 games in the inaugural 1955 season. He had a fantastic rebound year, slashing .364/.460/.484 with an OPS+ of 155 while picking up some down-ballot MVP votes. The problem was, the Athletics also had another decent, aging right fielder, Enos Slaughter and when the 1956 season rolled around, the team decided they could only keep one of them. They kept the 40-year-old Slaughter and released Valo. Understand, they didn’t trade him, even to the Yankees for a couple of warm bodies. They just flat-out released their best hitter. Decisions like that explain why the franchise never had a winning record in Kansas City. Valo almost immediately signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he provided a spark, hitting .289 over 98 games.
From that point, Valo bounced around a bit, as is common for aging players. He played the 1957 season in Brooklyn, followed by stints in Cleveland, New York (Yankees), Washington/Minnesota and finally back to the Phillies for the final 50 games of his career during the 1961 season.
Valo played in three decades, four if you count his minor league service. He also played in both cities of three franchises that relocated: Philadelphia-Kansas City, Brooklyn-Los Angeles, and finally Washington-Minnesota. That has to be some kind of record.
His best year came in 1949, playing for the Athletics in Philadelphia, when he slashed .283/.413/.404 with career highs in games played, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBI, and stolen bases. Valo was a line-drive hitter who carded five seasons better than .300 and his OBP exceeded .400 in eight different years.
On May 1, 1949, he became the first major league player to hit two bases-loaded triples in the same game, during a game against Washington in which he also drove home 7 runs. He hit for the cycle against the Chicago White Sox on August 2, 1950, a game in which he strangely only drove in one run. He ended his 20-year career with 29 WAR an OPS+ of 115 and a fielding percentage of .977. He collected his first career hit in his second at-bat, a single off Sid Hudson (the pitcher who later beaned him) of the Washington Senators on September 22nd, 1940. He got his last hit on September 10, 1961, with a two-run single off the Cubs Don Elston in a game at Wrigley.
In today’s game, a guy like Valo would make millions of dollars. As it were, his career earnings from baseball came out to just a shade over $250,000.
After his playing career ended, Valo started scouting for the New York Mets. By 1965, he was managing the Kansas City Athletics Class A Dubuque farm team, which included six future big league players, among them Joe Rudi. In 1970 he started scouting for the Phillies in eastern Pennsylvania. In 1995, he was inducted into the Phillies Wall of Fame, alongside Mike Schmidt. Valo died on July 19, 1998, at the age of 77, in his adopted hometown of Palmerton.