Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bill Renna, 89, played with Yankees, Athletics and Red Sox 1924-2014

Bill Renna, 1955 A's
Bill Renna, outfielder for the New York Yankees, Philadelphia / Kansas City Athletics, and Boston Red Sox from 1953-1959, passed away June 19, 2014 in San Jose, California. He was 89.

Renna returned from military service in World War II to become a two-sport star at the University of Santa Clara, playing outfield for the baseball team, and both fullback and center on the football team. His play on the gridiron earned him a spot in the East-West game in 1949, drawing the attention of the Los Angeles Rams; however, he chose to stick with baseball, learning under the guidance of Santa Clara’s legendary coach, Paddy Cottrell.

“Paddy Cottrell my coach at Santa Clara was a bird dog [scout] for the Yankees,” Renna said to me in a 2008 interview. “He used to teach us everything that was taught in spring training by the Yankees.”

Cottrell tipped Yankees scout Joe Devine to his prized outfielder who signed Renna in 1949 to a contract for $5,000. His signing paid immediate dividends, as he hit an eye-opening .385 with 21 home runs for Twin Falls in the Pioneer League. His play impressed his Twin Falls manager Charlie Metro, who was a former major leaguer himself.

“He hit like heck up there, and they called him “Bull,” because he was a big guy,” Metro said in his autobiography “Safe by a Mile.” “He was a delight to have on the team.”

The Yankees were so impressed with Renna’s 1949 season that they sent him to their AAA team in Kansas City. Renna was hit with the injury bug injuries in 1950 and could not duplicate his torrid start from the year prior. The Yankees sent him down to Class B Norfolk, where he hit .291 with 26 home runs.

“Bull” worked his way back to AAA in 1952 and played well enough to earn a promotion to the big leagues with the Yankees in 1953.

“I went to spring training with the Yankees in 1953 and there was an outfielder spot available, so I grabbed it and held onto it,” Renna said to Ed Attanasio of This Great Game. “Stengel platooned me with Gene Woodling in left field, alongside (Mickey) Mantle in center and with (Hank) Bauer and (Irv) Noren in right field.”
Bill Renna - 1953 Yankees

Renna hit .314 in 61 games, filling in at all three outfield spots to spell Mantle and Woodling while they recovered from various ailments. While he was on the roster for their World Series championship, he did not see any action during the series.

“I did not get to play, but I was on deck to pinch hit a couple times,” Renna said. “It was a little frustrating to get that close and not even get an at-bat.”

Despite being shut out during the World Series, one of Renna’s fondest memories from his rookie season with the Yankees was witnessing Mantle’s monstrous shot off of Chuck Stobbs in Griffith’s Stadium.

“I saw him hit the 565-foot homer out of Griffith’s Stadium in 1953 against Chuck Stobbs,” Renna said to John McCarthy of the Old Timers Baseball Association in 2008. “Mickey was batting right-handed against the lefty Stobbs who threw him an off-speed pitch that almost fooled him, but he stayed back and waited on the pitch. When it left the bat we all stood up in the dugout and watched the flight of the ball as it kept on going, and when it cleared the clock at the top of the stadium in left-centerfield, we were all in total amazement.”

Renna’s glory days with the Yankees would be unfortunately short-lived. In the 1953 off-season, he was part of an 11-player deal that sent Vic Power to the Philadelphia Athletics in exchange for first-baseman Eddie Robinson and pitcher Harry Byrd. Going from the perennial champs to the perennial cellar dwellers would have fazed most players, but not Renna.

“I have no complaint about that deal,” Renna said in 1958 to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “In fact, the trade was a benefit for me because I got the chance to be the regular right fielder with the A’s.”

Now with the opportunity to play full-time, Renna had his best major league season in 1954. In 123 games, he hit 13 home runs while gunning out 13 runners from the outfield. He played two more seasons with the Athletics, staying with them through their move to familiar territory, Kansas City.

“Moving back to Kansas City was kind of neat being I played there for awhile,” he said to me in his 2008 interview. “Kansas City received the A’s very well. They were excited about it. … They had a great fan base that liked the game of baseball.”

During the 1956 season, Renna was essentially traded for himself, returning to the Yankees in exchange for Eddie Robinson.

“The Yanks had a plan in mind for me, which probably boiled down to giving me another crack at making the grade,” Renna said in 1958. “I admit that I didn’t do the job at Richmond that either the Yankees or I expected that I would do. That’s why they traded me when I told them that I either stay in the majors or be traded.”

Renna got his wish, as the Yankees traded him to the Boston Red Sox for Eli Grba and Gordie Windhorn. After a monster 1957 season with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League where he slugged 29 home runs and drove in 105 runs, the Red Sox gave him another chance at the major league life.

He made the Red Sox in 1958 and spent the entire season as a backup to Ted Williams.

“I was Ted Williams’ caddy in Boston,” he said in our 2008 interview. “[Gene] Stephens and myself; he was a lefty and I was a righty. We’d play left field whenever Ted didn’t play.”

Williams tried to impart sage hitting advice to Renna one day during batting practice, but as many that Williams attempted to council would find out, what came naturally for Williams was a struggle for most.

“One day we were in the outfield during batting practice and Ted said to crowd the plate a little more. I said, ‘I can’t handle that, just like you do, you have a quick bat and you hit that inside pitch really well’. He said, ‘You want them to pitch you tight.’ I said, ‘I don’t want that, I can’t hit on that part, that hard fastball gives me trouble. I have plate coverage; I go over the plate and tap the outside. I’m not going to crowd the plate; I can’t flip the bat like you do.’”

The Red Sox sent Renna back to the minor leagues during the 1959 season and he retired after finishing out the year with San Diego. While he felt he could physically play a few more years, family responsibilities trumped his desires to continue.

“I retired in 1959 from San Diego, came here to San Jose, and got a job with Central Concrete Supplies selling ready mix concrete,” he said. “I had three children to worry about; I didn’t want to follow a minor league club around as a coach with three kids that were getting ready to start school. I didn’t think it was fair to them.”

Renna worked with Central Concrete for over 26 years retiring in 1990, retiring to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren. Very much a student of the game, Renna looked at the current state of play in Major League Baseball with a critical eye.

“When I was playing,” he said, “there were only 16 teams, as opposed to 30 now. Half of the league wouldn’t have had a shot. There are a lot of more opportunities to play in the majors now. It’s a different situation completely. It was more difficult then to make it to the majors then it is now. There were a lot more kids playing professional baseball, as there were so many leagues.

“If you watch the game the way it is played in the majors now there are a lot of things that are done that shouldn’t be done because if they have been taught to play the game, they would know to do these things the proper way. For example, people running into each other, infielders and outfielders. Its communication, I learned it in college. When we went into the pros, we were taught it again in the minors. Evidently, these poor kids aren’t taught a lot of this stuff. It’s unfortunate.”

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