Don Mincher, Joe Sparma and the importance of headgear

Don Mincher passed away this week at his home in Huntsville, Ala., after a long illness. He was 73.

Mincher was one of a handful of players to perform for both the original Senators and the expansion club, playing first base during the final year of both franchises in D.C. He came to Washington as part of the late 1960 spring training trade with the White Sox that also brought catcher Earl Battey to the Senators, along with $150,000, for first baseman Roy Sievers. Washington wasted no time putting Mincher into the lineup, batting him cleanup in the opener at Griffith Stadium. Mincher went 0-for-4, but the Senators prevailed 10-1 behind Camilo Pascual. The lone Red Sox run came on a long home run by Ted Williams, later to play his own role in a Senators uniform.

Mincher struggled at the plate, and in mid-May was optioned to Triple-A Charleston in the American Association, where he batted .306 with 12 home runs and 65 RBIs in 112 games. He was brought back to D.C. in September, but played sparingly. He finished his rookie season with an average .241 with two home runs (the first off of Baltimore’s Milt Pappas on April 25) and five RBIs.

After the club moved to Minnesota, Mincher was a mainstay with the Twins through 1966 before he was traded to the Angels in the Dean Chance deal. After two years in Anaheim, he was taken by the new Seattle Pilots as the second pick in the expansion draft.

Mincher played well for the Pilots, but one game really stands out in my memory. It was Saturday, May 31, 1969, and Seattle was hosting Detroit in the “NBC Game of the Week.” Right-hander Joe Sparma was on the mound for the Tigers, and through eight innings had held the Pilots without a hit, though he had allowed an unearned run on a walk and a Norm Cash error. He had also walked seven hitters - command was never Sparma’s strong suit.

Top on the ninth, Tommy Davis leads off and flies out to Jim Northrup in left, bringing Mincher to the plate. Mincher hits a dot to the gap in right-center, a no doubt about it solid double. Adios, no-hitter. Wayne Comer, a future Senator at that point, reaches on an error by shortstop Dick Tracewski, Mincher to third. Rich Rollins then hit into a force play, short to second, and Mincher scored. Sparma got Larry Haney to fly out to right, ending the game.

After the game, NBC’s Tony Kubek was on the field interviewing Sparma and Mincher. Sparma had won the game, but lost his no-hit bid after 8 1/3 innings, and clearly wasn’t happy about it. He talked about how he had such good stuff that day - no mention of the seven walks - and then the microphone turned to Mincher, who memorably said, “I just want my mom back home in Alabama to know that I never hit without a batting helmet on my head.”

Somehow that seemed entirely appropriate and kind of folksy.

Mincher was traded to Oakland the following year, and then was spun to the Senators as part of the Mike Epstein-Darold Knowles deal in May 1971. He played well for Ted Williams, batting .291 - a career high - in 100 games, with 10 home runs and 45 RBIs on a bad club. In July 1972, he was sent back to Oakland, where he served as a pinch hitter for the eventual world champs. His final big league plate appearance came in Game 4 of the World Series against Cincinnati. He batted for Dick Green in the bottom of the ninth with two on and one out and singled to right off of Clay Carroll, plating the tying run. He left for a pinch runner, and the A’s won the game 3-2 when pinch hitter Angel Mangual singled home Allan Lewis, and the A’s were up 3-1 in the series.

After retiring as a player (with an even 200 home runs) Mincher became owner of the Huntsville Stars of the Double-A Southern League where, presumably, he no longer had to worry about wearing a helmet. He later served as league president.