Long before Ripken, Hansen broke the mold for big league shortstops

There were a multitude of notable achievements in Ron Hansen’s career - a Rookie of the Year Award, two All-Star nods,15 seasons in the majors, the rarest of rare defensive feats - but perhaps his biggest accomplishment was proving that shortstops didn’t have to be small or wiry guys who could only flash the leather.

Think Cal Ripken Jr. redefined the position? Think again. A generation before Ripken was playing game after game after game, the 6-foot-3, 200-lb. Hansen was one of the first big men to man shortstop, and his arrival in Baltimore coincided with the Orioles’ transition from a perennial doormat to pennant contender.

“I was probably the first of the real big shortstops, I guess,” Hansen said before a recent appearance with other former O’s, who signed autographs and interacted with fans as part of the Orioles Alumni Autograph Series. “There were other shortstops like, maybe, Marty Marion who were almost as tall, but they weighed about 150 or 160 pounds. I was probably the first to weigh about 200 pounds and play. Everybody said, ‘You’re too big to play there,’ but it worked out. Now, everybody’s that big. Cal was even bigger than I and all the shortstops now are pretty good size.”Hansen.jpg

Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez - they all owe a debt of gratitude to the 73-year-old Hansen, who proved big guys could gracefully glide through the hole while helping out an offense. Before Hansen, shortstop was often the domain of smaller players, good fielders who weren’t expected to contribute as much at the plate.

Hansen’s breakthrough season came in 1960, when he was named American League Rookie of the Year after batting .255 with 22 homers and 86 RBIs for an O’s team that went 89-65 and made things difficult for the Yankees, staying in the AL race until the pennant-winning Bronx Bombers swept a four-game mid-September series in New York.

Manager Paul Richards’ club posted the highest number of victories since moving from St. Louis following the 1953 season, and youth was a major reason. The “Baby Birds” featured an infield where 26-year-old first baseman Jim Gentile was the elder statesman, future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson manned third base and a rotation featured five hurlers 22 or younger.

“It was a great year. It was a turnaround, a year when the Orioles, as an organization, brought up a bunch of young guys,” remembered Hansen, who would have made the club as the starting shortstop in 1957 but for a spring training back injury. “There was Brooks Robinson, myself, Marv Breeding. Jim Gentile came over from the Dodgers. We had some young pitchers in Jerry Walker and Chuck Estrada. Milt Pappas was here - he had pitched in the big leagues, but he was still a youngster. They called those pitchers ‘The Kiddie Corps,’ and we were just a bunch of young guys and they brought us up all at about the same time and we did fairly well. We seemed to jell and we had a pretty good season.”

Hansen stayed in Baltimore through the 1962 season, hitting .235 in five seasons but never matching the impressive offensive numbers from his rookie season. The Birds dealt him to the White Sox in January 1963, along with outfielders Dave Nicholson and Pete Ward and pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, in exchange for shortstop Luis Aparicio and outfielder Al Smith. The deal worked out, as the speedy but diminuitive Aparacio was a defensive cornerstone for the 1966 Orioles world championship team.

The most frustrating part for Hansen about leaving Baltimore wasn’t missing out on the completion of the turnaround. It was leaving a city that had become home to the native of Oxford, Neb.

“It was frustrating to the point that this was my home and I had to leave when I got traded,” he said. “But I got traded to the White Sox and Chicago was a very good ballclub. In those days, there were eight teams and there were no playoffs, so I went from a pretty good ballclub here to a pretty good ballclub there. It all worked out for me. It wasn’t disappointing to me so much that I missed ‘66 and going to the World Series and they really became a very good club. I had some pretty good years in Chicago.”

While in a White Sox uniform, Hansen continued his stellar defensive play, though back problems continued to plague him. He was traded to the Washington Senators before the 1968 season and, while in D.C., became the eighth player in major league history to turn an unassisted triple play on July 30, 1968 against Cleveland.

In the first inning, with Indians on first and second and no outs, Cleveland’s Dave Nelson broke for third on a 3-2 pitch to Joe Azcue, who lined a shot up the middle. Hansen snagged the liner, stepped on second to double up Nelson and then tagged out Russ Snyder, who was between first and second. It was the first unassisted triple play in 41 years and earned Hansen’s glove a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Two days later, he was traded back to the White Sox. In both Chicago-Washington deals that year, both Hansen and second baseman Tim Cullen were involved, making them the only pair of players to be twice traded for one another in a single major league season.

“I think most people remember me mostly for being Rookie of the Year in 1960, but a lot of people still talk about the unassisted triple play,” said Hansen.

Older Orioles fans flocking to the MASN tent for the final alumni autograph series of the 2011 season fondly remembered Hansen. The popular practice of having former Orioles sign for and interact with fans will continue when baseball returns to Camden Yards in 2012.

“I come in contact with a lot of people who remember those days,” Hansen said of his exchanges with O’s fans. “It’s really surprising sometimes how much people really do remember. You get a lot of people who say, ‘I remember one game,’ and they bring up things that I’ve even forgotten.”

Hansen coached in Milwaukee and Montreal, managed in the minors and later scouted for the Yankees and Phillies before retiring a year ago.

“I do miss it a little bit,” he said. “I miss being around the ballpark and I miss the guys, I miss being around the baseball scene. But I don’t miss the travel and I don’t miss the paperwork.”

Retirement brought Hansen back home - again.

“I still make my home here. My wife is from here ... and my children were born here and my grandchildren were born here. So we’re natives,” Hansen said.

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