Induction Year: 1985

Ralph GarrWhat baseball player had more than 800 hits in his first four full seasons in the major leagues?

Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio came close, with 791. Stan ‘The Man” Musial had 792 a few years later. But this player was wearing diapers when Musial finished his fourth season. Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron also had more that 700. So did a convicted gambler named Pete Rose.

Give up? Here’s a hint. This guy hit .568 in the final season of his college baseball career. One year later, he stole 32 bases and hit .293 with the Shreveport Braves in the Texas League. The next year, he stole 68 bases and hit .386 with the Richmond Braves in the International League.

The answer: Ralph Allen “Road Runner” Garr.

The most obvious difference between Garr’s hits and the ones that DiMaggio, Musial, Williams, Cobb, Aaron and Rose collected was that most of the others were either hitting the ball out of the park or at least out of the infield. With Garr’s speed, that wasn’t necessary.

“If he hit the ball on the ground,” said Atlanta Braves teammate George Stone, “he had a chance to beat it out.’

“Road Runner” once had eight consecutive hits for the Braves, and four of them never left the infield.

The great players who came close to 800 hits in their first four seasons also knew about the strike zone. Williams wouldn’t swing at a pitch that was two inches outside the strike zone. Garr went after pitches two feet outside the strike zone—and hit them.

“Most hitters looked for certain pitches,” recalled Cecil Upshaw, another Braves teammate from North Louisiana. “Ralph looked for the ball—and he hit it.”

“Ralph Garr,” wrote columnist Jim Murray, “was as hard to get out as an impacted tooth. He didn’t require strikes. He hit anything that didn’t hit him first. He utilized every part of the ball park except the outfield seats (his few home runs went between, not over, people.)”

Many of his base hits came on balls that opposing pitchers were trying waste. Once, in Chicago, a pitcher made Garr look bad with a couple of sliders. He missed both of them by a foot. Then the pitcher tried to set him up with a high ball. But it wasn’t high enough. Garr Hit it into the gap and was laughing as he ran around the bases. One day later, the pitcher was back in the minors.

When Garr led the national League in batting with .353 in 1974, he had 100 hits by June 1. The National League record of 254, shared by Lefty O’Doul and Bill Terry, appeared to be in jeopardy. But a late season injury stalled “Road Runner” at 214.

With Garr making $55,000 that year, his hits ere the best bargains in the big leagues at $257 apiece. The same year, Reggie Jackson was getting nearly $1000 for each of his hits. Garr took advantage of a salary arbitration procedure then in its second year and was awarded $114,500 a year later—becoming the first major leaguer to double his salary through the arbitration procedure.

“He was just a pure hitter,” summed up Upshaw.

Growing up in Ruston, Garr launched his baseball career on junior teams coached by Wilbert Ellis and Curtis Mayfield.

“Ralph always hustled,” recalled Ellis, who assisted Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones (The university president and head baseball coach) when Garr was playing at Grambling state in the mid-1960s. “He was a natural hitter, and he had a lot of talent to be developed.”

Dr. Jones told Garr he was too small to play college ball, so he went back to his semi-pro team. When he tore the cover off the ball all summer against Grambling’s varsity pitchers, “The Prez” decided to give the kid a chance. He didn’t burn up the Southwestern Athletic Conference as a freshman, but his average steadily improved—from .247 to .336 to .387 and, finally, .568.

“I just loved baseball, period,’ Garr recalled. “I worked hard at it.”

After his phenomenal senior season at Grambling, Garr was signed by long-time scout Mel Didier.

With the Braves, Garr never stole more than 35 bases in one season. With such power hitters as Aaron, Rico Carey, Orlando Cepeda and Darrell Evans, stealing bases wasn’t necessary.

Nobody went from home to first faster than “Road Runner”—or from home to third base. Twice, in 1974 and 1975, he led the National League in triples.

Even after he was traded to the Chicago White Sox, a club that lacked the Braves’ power, Garr hit .300 for two years in a row. After a little more than seven seasons, he had a lifetime batting average of .314 and was averaging more than 185 hits per year. But he was no longer playing for a contender, and his numbers went unnoticed.

“It’s hard to get noticed when you’re on a team that isn’t going anywhere,” he noted. “Your abilities tend to get overlooked.”

At the age of 31, he seemed to be on his way to Cooperstown. But baseball people are more interested in what you have done for them lately, and Garr’s batting average dropped under .270 in his last three seasons. H was traded to the California Angels in 1970 and was released one year later.

He had the reputation on being a poor fielder, but Garr thought his speed was responsible for a bad rap. “Why can’t they give me credit?” he asked. “I reach balls other guys can’t get close to. But I’d catch 50 and miss one, and it’d be ‘I knew you couldn’t catch it.’ It disencouraged me.”

He was charged with 52 errors in five National League seasons, and was often removed for defensive purposes in the late innings. Managers didn’t mid overlooking a few errors when he was getting more than 200 hits a year, but a player who is struggling to reach .270 couldn’t afford a Dr. Strangeglove reputaition.

“Baseball is a dream life,” said Garr, who started scouting for the Braves in 1985. He lives in Missouri City, Texas, a suburb of Houston. His son, Ralph Jr., was drafted by the Braves in 1990 and his daughter, Rae, is in the senior class of 1992 at Kempner High, where Ralph’s wife, Ruby Lee, is head of the business department.

“I knew I could hit and run,” Garr said, “and I never had any doubt that I could play. It was enjoyale for me to do the things I could do. I was pretty much blessed.”

His ratio of home runs to official at-bats was one in 68, but his career batting average was .306. The bottom line numbers were 1,562 base hits and 172 stolen bases in an 11-year major league career—and many of those hits were on pitches that were actually in the strike zone.