As “Oops” moments go, the one committed by Fred Valentine in his rookie season with the Orioles in 1959 was a whopper. But the affable 77-year-old now laughs off his error of aggression as a youthful indiscretion.
“Paul Richards was the manager when they brought me up in ‘59,” Valentine said. “Gus Triandos was catching, and they put me in the lineup, hitting behind Triandos. Sure enough, he hit a ball off the right-field wall - and Gus was slow, really slow - and stopped at first base. I’m behind him. I came up, hit a ball off the right-center wall, and it caromed over to the left. Here, I’m a rookie and I want to do the best I can. I’m running like anything, God-gifted with speed. I turned first base, turned second and thought, ‘I can get a triple out of this.’
“(Luman Harris) was coaching third base, and I got there, slid in and (he) said, ‘Safe!’ Then I looked back at second base and there’s Gus Triandos. I has passed him before he even got to second base. All I got was a single and I was out. ... They didn’t give me a hard time about it. They knew I was a rookie, and I was trying to do the best I could. I came in, Paul Richards called me over and he said, ‘Son?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir?’ He said, ‘I learned something today. I’ve been around for a while. As long as you play for me, I’ll never put you behind Gus Triandos in the lineup.’ “
Valentine, whose tenure with the Orioles dates to 1956 when they signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee State University, had three tours of duty in Baltimore. He batted .316 in 12 September games in 1959, then didn’t return to the majors until 1963, when he hit .263 in 26 games. That winter, Valentine was sold to the Washington Senators, for whom he played until June 15, 1968, when he was dealt back to the Orioles for pitcher Bruce Howard. Valentine played the final 47 games of his major league career with his original club and spent 1969 at Triple-A Rochester before retiring.
His best season came in 1966 with the Senators, when Valentine batted .276 with 16 homers, 59 RBIs and 22 stolen bases. Those totals were enough to place him 21st in the voting for the American League Most Valuable Player Award, which went to the O’s Frank Robinson, winner of baseball’s triple crown.
Given that Valentine played for both the Orioles and Senators - for parts of five seasons - does he think the rivalry between the two mid-Atlantic cities will ever take off?
“It seems to be primed for that right now,” he said. “Baltimore, I’m glad to see them back up, because they were down for a few years. I’m glad to see Washington spending some money to get younger players to come in. Within two or three years, there’s a good opportunity and a good possibility it may be another good rivalry between Washington and Baltimore.”
Valentine moved to Northwest D.C. when he was sent to the Senators in 1963, and he’s made his home there ever since with his wife of 53 years, Helena. But he’s still a popular fixture during the Orioles Alumni Autograph Series, where former O’s players sign for free outside Dempsey’s Brew Pub and Restaurant before Monday and Thursday home games. Participants are not announced in advance and sign for an hour beginning 90 minutes before first pitch.
“It’s amazing when you come out to these functions,” Valentine said. “You come across people that remember the old days - back in the ’60s and ’70s. I started my career here in ‘59, so that goes back. The amazing thing about today is one guy came up to me that was in the Orioles’ fantasy camp when I was a manager down in Florida, and he said it was the only fantasy camp he went to and told me how much he enjoyed playing for me. It makes you feel good to come back.”
Valentine has never been very far away from baseball. In 1982, he was one of the founding members of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. According to the organization’s website, the group was established “in order to promote the game of baseball, raise money for charity, inspire and educate youth through positive sport images and protect the dignity of the game through former players. A nonprofit organization, the MLBPAA establishes a place where a player’s drive for excellence and achievement on the field can continue long after they take their last steps off the professional diamond.”
Orioles legend Brooks Robinson is the MLBPAA’s president, and the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based group runs clinics featuring baseball legends, makes charitable donations to a variety of causes and assists former major leaguers who have fallen on hard times. But it had very humble beginnings.
“Brooks Robinson was a part of it. Jim Hannan and Chuck Hinton from Washington,” recalled Valentine, remembering how the fledgling organization relied on donated meeting space from D.C. hotels at its inception. “Started off as a small group. Chuck thought of the idea. We didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any backing. It was nothing but an idea.”
But one that flourished. Now the MLBPAA holds an annual offseason Legends for Youth Dinner in New York City, recognizing former major leaguers for their endeavors in the community. The group’s community service award is named for Robinson.
“Sure enough, we got organized and gradually grew,” Valentine said. “From Washington and Baltimore, the message got out. We got a director to keep us together. We got a lawyer that loved baseball that gave us some insight and direction from the legal side. And we kept growing. We didn’t have money for postage stamps or anything, but people knew we had a good idea in mind. Now we’re well over 8,000 members and helping former ballplayers.”
Not surprisingly, Valentine’s favorite activity is the youth clinics, which both keep him young and allow him to interact with a new generation of baseball fans.
“The majority of my time right now is working with kids,” he said. “At least once a week, we have clinics for the kids in the Washington metropolitan area, in the schools. ... I support the Orioles and the Nationals because that’s where my roots came from. It’s just part of me. It’s all in the blood and all in the heart. I sleep and eat it. I’ve been blessed.”