- 2B, CF, LF, OF, RF, SS, 3B
- May 5, 1951
- 5' 11"
- 160 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 7-10-1971 with PIT
He burst on the scene in August, 1971, with his team embattled in a tight pennant race and several hitters starting to slump. With Jose Pagan out with a fractured wrist and Dave Cash having to fulfill military duty, he was thrust into the lineup at secondbase, a position he had been playing for less than a year and he exceeded all hopes by batting .353 and hitting in a team high 18 consecutive games. In the field, the young man from Panama delighted fans with an abundance of enthusiasm and range.
His name is Rennie Stennett, and if not for a terrible leg injury, he likely would have been rated in the top 25 players in Pirate history and might have become a Hall of Famer. He was that good.
Stennett was signed by Howie Haak in 1969 and moved quickly through the Pirate system. He hit .288 in his first professional season at Gastonia as an outfielder. The next year, playing in a higher A-Ball League at Salem, Stennett won the Carolina League batting crown at .326 and led the circuit in hits with 176. That fall, the Pirates, heavily stocked with outfielders, moved Stennett to secondbase during the Winter Instructional League. He moved up to AAA Columbus in 1971 and was on his way to his second strait minor league batting title, hitting .344 before the Bucs called him up. Coupled with his great hitting late in the 1971 season, and given that he was only 20-years old, some fans thought he had the batting skills to become another Clemente at the plate.
Still, his lack of experience, coupled with his manager, Danny Murtaugh’s, respect for the veteran Pagan, led to Stennett being left off the postseason roster. Murtaugh’s decision, of course, paid off when Pagan contributed a double to score the decisive run in Game 7 of the World Series that year, but Stennett was deeply hurt by not having the chance to play in the Fall Classic.
Stennett went to spring training the next year determined to break camp wearing the big league uniform, despite talk in the Pirate camp that the team might be retarding his development if he sat on the bench behind Cash in the majors rather than playing regularly in the minors. Stennett had a great spring as he brushed up on his fielding not only at second, but in the outfield as well. After filling in impressively early in the year, it was obvious Rennie would not be going back to the minors any time soon. In 1972, Stennett played second, short and all three outfield positions. In fact, he made a spectacular catch off a potential homerun by the Giants Bobby Bonds on August 25 to save Nellie Briles” one hit, 1-0 victory and made a game-saving throw in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series From leftfield. He hit a solid .286 in both the regular season and the playoffs and got enough at bats to garnish over 100 hits.
While National League opponents, such as Johnny Bench, observed Stennett “could hit anything thrown up there,” Rennie’s free swinging required some adjustments in 1973. He again filled a super-sub role, but his bat never got going and, although he hit a career high 10 homeruns, his batting average fell to .242. Still, Stennett showed enough at the plate and excellent range in the field that Joe L. Brown traded the ever-dependable Cash to make room for Stennett at second.
Despite being given an everyday job in 1974, Stennett started slowly, particularly in the field. The Pirates played even worse and were in last place on June 12. But the team, with Stennett reflecting its play, turned matters around after that. Between July 25 and September 29, Stennett handled 408 chances without an error, which was only 10 behind the record at the time. He led secondbaseman in total chances per game and put outs, finishing second in assists and double plays. At the plate, he hit .291, while setting a career high with 196 hits, the most ever by a Pirate secondbaseman. He was called by some the team’s MVP and gained a reputation as an excellent clutch hitter, but the tough Dodger pitchers held him to a paltry one for sixteen in the playoffs.
1975 saw Stennett hit a solid .286 and drive in 62 runs as a lead off hitter. His clutch hitting partially made up for his free swinging approach which gathered him few walks. This approach, however, may have aided him in becoming the only player to go seven for seven in nine inning game during the 20th century. Stennett had his incredible day in Wrigley Field against the Cubs on September 16, during a 22-0 Pirate laugher. He also established records the following two nights when he singled twice in his first two at bats in Philadelphia for nine consective hits and finished the night three for five , tying the record of 10 hits in two games. He tied the NL three-game record the following night, smacking two more hits for a total of 12 bingles in three games. Overall, his 176 hits tied Al Oliver for the team lead and he continued to win praise for his great range at second. Sparky Anderson called him one of the most hustling players in the game.
While Stennett continued to track down balls all over the right side of the Pirate infield in 1976, leading the league in total chances per game and putouts, his hitting slumped to .257 with only two homeruns. Under Murtaugh that season, the Pirates began to transition from a slow-moving power offense into one which combined power with speed. Stennett stole 18 bases, doubling his career high to that point. The emphasis on speed continued in 1977 under Chuck Tanner, who moved Stennett to sixth in the order to allow the Pirates to take more advantage of his clutchhitting and where the secondsacker’s free swinging style would be better suited. Rennie hit .327 during the first half of the season and was on pace to tally over 200 hits. During the next few weeks, Stennett raised his average even higher-to .336, by hitting .360. His mark trailed only teammate Dave Parker.
Then disaster. The type of disaster which all but ends a player’s career and leaves fans asking “what if” for years to come. On August 21, again in game against the Giants, Stennett began to slide into secondbase to break up a double play. Tim Foli, then playing shortstop for San Francisco, signaled the play would not involve Stennett and Rennie tried to stop his slide just as he started it and severely fractured his right leg. Utility man Fernando Gonzalez was one of the first to reach Stennett, who writhed in pain in the basepath. He later said that he couldn’t look. Ironically, a player who had always been acknowledged for his hustle had become irreparably damaged by it at the age of 26.
Stennett tried hard to comeback in 1978, but he hit just .243 and his range was hampered so much that Tanner briefly moved him to third, flipflopping him with Phil Garner. He played only 38 games the second half of the season, but opened 1979 as the team’s starting secondbaseman. It had been noted that it had taken former batting champ Tommy Davis over a year to recover from a similar injury and Davis had again hit .300, so the Pirates and their fans were optimistic that they would have their all-star caliber player back, but Stennett hit only .238 and his range was only slightly improved in the field. When the Pirates traded for Bill Madlock, Garner went to secondbase and Stennett to the bench. Pinch-hitting, Stennett finally got to appear in the World Series, singling in his lone at bat. He left the World Champions, signing a surprisingly lucrative contract with, you guessed it, the Sand Francisco Giants, following the Series. After another poor season in 1980, Stennett was relegated to the Giants’ bench and the team ate the remainder of his contract after 1981. Stennett signed a minor league contract with Montreal and hit well in the minors, but was released anyways.
After his only connection with playing in “The Show” was appearances in Old-Timers’ Games for several years, Stennett attempted a comeback with the Pirates, signing a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training in 1989 at the age of 38. He stated at the time that he was hitting as well as he ever had, and collected a few hits in the Grapefruit League, but failed to make the team and retired.
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- Rennie Stennett