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Donald Hopkins

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[edit] Biographical Information

Don Hopkins would never have made it to the major leagues, were it not for his baserunning ability. As it were, he was one of several "professional" pinch runners used by the Oakland Athletics in the mid-1970s. Convinced that speed won ballgames, A's owner Charles Finley regularly employed a roster spot for players who had great speed regardless of other talents they may have brought to the team. This culminated with the hiring of sprinter Herb Washington, who had no baseball playing experience, to spend the entire 1974 season with the team as a pinch-running specialist. Even though Oakland won the World Series that season, the players did not like to see a roster spot given to someone whose abilities were so limited. This is where Hopkins got his brief chance to be in the Show.

Born in 1952 in West Point, MS, Hopkins was a four-sport star at Benton Harbor High School in Benton Harbor, MI, leading the baseball team to the state championship and running the 100-yard dash in an outstanding 9.5 seconds. He signed with the Montreal Expos as an undrafted free agent in 1970 and began his career with the GCL Expos that year, going 11 for 41 in 22 games as an outfielder for a .268 batting average at age 18. In 1971, he was in the Northern League, with the Watertown Expos in the last year of that circuit's existence as an affiliated minor league. He hit only .204 in 55 games, with 4 extra-base hits, but stole a league-leading 39 bases. He was a teammate there of Larry Lintz, who stole 25 bases and would also be a full-time pinch runner for the Athletics, after Hopkins' stint there. Hopkins continued running wild in 1972, this time setting a New York-Penn League record with 63 steals in 70 games for the Jamestown Falcons; by then, the more talented Lintz was in AA, stealing 96 bases for the Quebec Carnavals. Hopkins had a decent year with the bat, however, hitting .258 with 56 runs scored. He moved up to full-season Class A in 1973, playing 32 games for the West Palm Beach Expos of the Florida State League, where he hit .225 but stole a remarkable 28 bases, then to AA Quebec where he was no longer a full-time starter, but added another 30 steals in 53 games - including 5 in one game - while hitting only .206 and slugging an anemic .232. It's good to be fast, but a player has to hit as well, so back down he went in 1974, to the Kinston Expos of the Carolina League where he could once again be a full-time starter. Kinston was a dreadful team, however, going 38-93. Hopkins was a rare bright spot, hitting .301 in 82 games and scoring 52 runs. Before the end of the season, he was promoted to Quebec where he hit .261 and drew 7 walks in 12 games, earning another promotion, to AAA ball with the Memphis Blues, where he went 2 for 22 in 8 games.

With the Expos' organization brimming over with talented outfielders in 1975, there was little room for someone like Hopkins with obvious holes in his game, and the Expos sold him to the Oakland Athletics at the end of spring training in 1975. He was suddenly on the team's opening day roster, alongside Herb Washington. He was theoretically more than a pinch runner, but in fact his other contributions were minimal: In 82 games, he had 8 plate appearances and played 5 games in the outfield, while scoring 25 runs and stealing 21 bases. He spent a month in AAA with the Tucson Toros of the Pacific Coast League for most of August, batting .259 in 24 games with 15 steals. A month into the season, the baseball-challenged Washington was released and replaced by Matt Alexander, a real player who had earned his earlier shot at the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs with his overall ability. Still, Hopkins was the main pinch runner and he was placed on the A's postseason roster after they won the AL West title for the 5th straight year. He was actually used as a pinch hitter for future Hall of Famer Billy Williams in the 9th inning of Game 1 of the ALCS, with the A's down 7-1 to the Boston Red Sox; he hit a grounder to shortstop against Luis Tiant, forcing out Gene Tenace and was stranded on first base when Bert Campaneris was out on a foul pop-up to end the game. He was sent down to AAA to start the 1976 season, and hit .264 in 98 games, with 42 steals with Tucson, while Alexander and his former minor league teammate Larry Lintz handled the pinch running duties for the A's. Hopkins was called up in September with the A's in a tight pennant race with the Kansas City Royals, but as the team's third pinch runner, he only got into three games, being thrown out on his only steal attempt as the A's finished second. The heart of the team left via free agency after the season, and there was no room for Hopkins on the much weaker 1977 squad, especially as both Alexander and Lintz were still around. Hopkins was sent to the AAA San Jose Missions of the PCL, where he hit a meager .214 in 37 games, with a .232 slugging percentage. If he could barely stay above the Mendoza Line with the farm team of one of the majors' weakest teams, it was clear that his future in baseball was dim. He was cut loose before the season ended, bringing a term to his playing career.

[edit] Further Reading

  • Clifford Blau: "Leg Men: Career Pinch-Runners in Major League Baseball", in The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Volume 38, Number 1 (Summer 2009), pp. 70-81.

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