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Raising Arizona

Arizona at a state has produced a number of significant ballplayers. For example, Barry Bonds, who graduated from Arizona State in 1986 with a degree in - oh, the irony! - criminology. Or Paul Konerko, who still holds the game, season and career home-run records for Chaparral High School in Scottsdale. However, neither of them were born in Arizona: Bonds was in Riverside, CA and Konerko in Providence, RI.

And while the Diamondbacks have an impressive record in their short existence, only three of their 222 players have been home-grown. First was Tucson-born LHP Ed Vosberg. He appeared in four games of the 1999 season, allowing six hits and no walks in 2.2 innings. Another pitcher, Albie Lopez of Mesa, was traded by the Devil Rays to us in July 2001, along with Mike Difelice, for Jason Conti and Nick Bierbrodt. He went 4-7 down the stretch, and got the loss in Game 5 of the World Series. Finally, Shea Hillenbrand, another Mesa boy, is the only Arizona-born position player, appearing in 233 games at 1B and 3B, after being swapped with Boston for Kim.

Indeed, in the history of baseball, only 78 players have been born in the state. This is, no doubt, largely due to the recent explosive increase in the state, whose population grew more than ten-fold between 1940 and 2000. It's reflected in a steady increase in the number of AZ players who made their debuts; the ratio appears impressively-stable over the past century, at about one player for every 220,000 residents. The following table showing the population of the state every ten years, and the number of players who made their debut in the following decade.

Year Population - Players
1910    204,354 -    1
1920    334,162 -    2
1930    435,573 -    2
1940    499,261 -    5
1950    749,587 -    3  
1960  1,302,161 -    6          
1970  1,775,399 -    9
1980  2,716,546 -   13
1990  3,665,228 -   14
2000  5,130,632 -   23 so far.

The first ever was the wonderfully-named Flame Delhi, who made his debut for the Chicago White Sox on April 16, 1912, the day after the Titanic sank - and 54 years to the day before Mrs. McLennan had a little boy in Leanchoil Hospital, Forres. :-) Arizona had only been a state for a scant couple of months, when Lee William Delhi (known as "Flame" for his red hair) came in for the seventh inning. He was born in 1892 in Harqua Hala, a town that sprung up after gold was discovered nearby [the settlement died as quickly as it was born, and is now a ghost-town south of the 60 between Aguila and Wenden]

He had been a well-known player in California baseball for the Los Angeles Angels, winning 27 of their 82 wins in 1911. This included both a complete-game, eighteen-inning winning effort on April 6, and another complete game in August, where he threw just 75 pitches. That record stood for 29 years as the fewest pitches in a nine-inning professional outing, but it was of no help in his major-league career, as Flame made only that one appearance, surrendering three runs in three innings, on seven hits and three walks against the Ty Cobb-less Detroit Tigers [Cobb had bailed on his team, after his hotel room was next to the train tracks!]. He was out of organized baseball before he was thirty, and ended up becoming the vice-president of Western Pipe and Steel. He died at the age of 73, in 1966.

It would be nine years before Arizona's second player arrived, and curiously, he also played for the White Sox. Left-handed pitcher Lum Davenport appeared in 13 games for them during the 1921 season, and added another 12 over the next three years. The White Sox monopoly was broken in 1927 when Cleveland used Hap Collard, of Williams, but it wasn't until 1933 that the first position player appeared. Hank Leiber was a three-time All-Star and had his best season in 1935, batting .331 with 22 homers as an outfielder for the New York Giants. At the end of his career, he even pitched for the Giants - and, Messrs. Cirillo and Ojeda note, this was not a one-inning spectacle. He started the second game of a double-header against Philadelphia, and pitched a complete game, albeit in a losing cause.

Another candidate for the Arizona's best all-time player is Solly Hemus, a middle-infielder who spent a decade with the St. Louis and Philadelphia organizations. He posted a lifetime .273 average, and was a typically Arizonan independent spirit, known for battling with opponents, umpires and when younger, his managers. "I was originally signed by the Dodgers," Hemus said. "They released me in spring training after I got in an argument with the manager going to Fort Worth. It was my fault because I shouldn’t have been popping off at the mouth. But, I was a young guy and I didn’t know nothing anyway." He was one of the last player-managers, appearing in 24 games for the Cardinals in 1959, while also managing them.

The only major award-winner to come from Arizona is John Denny, who took home the 1983 Cy Young award, getting 20 of the 24 first-place votes. That came after a masterful season for the Phillies, where he went 19-6, with a 2.37 ERA. He also won Game One of the World Series, but Philadelphia went down 4-1 to Baltimore. He also led the NL in ERA with a 2.52 figure in 1976 with the Cardinals, yet only had a 11-9 record. He wasn't a strikeout pitcher, with a strikeout rate of only 4.8 K/9, but had an excellent curve and change-up, and also fielded his position well. However, there can't be many Cy Young winners who never received another vote for the award, before or after their victory, and Denny is likely one of the most-obscure champions.

Billy Hatcher played more games in the majors than any other Arizonan, with an eleven-year career, despite never managing an OPS+ better than 106. He's perhaps best known for his 1987 suspension for bat-corking, following an incident in which his bat shattered, scattering super balls over the infield. However, he had a .404 average in fourteen post-season games, including seven consecutive hits in the 1990 World Series. There, he went 9-for-12, but lost as MVP to pitcher Jose Rijo, who allowed one earned run in 15.1 innings. Hatcher also homered in the bottom of the 14th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series, though his Astros still lost to the Mets. He is now the first-base coach for the Cincinnati Reds.

The All-Time Arizona All-Stars

  • C. Ron Hassey [Tucson, 1192 games, .266 BA]
  • 1B. Shea Hillenbrand [Mesa, 943 games, 108 HR]
  • 2B. Solly Hemus [Phoenix, 961 games, 115 OPS+]
  • 3B. Jack Howell [Tucson, 941 games, 108 HR]
  • SS. Jeff Huson [Scottsdale, 827 games, 64 SB]
  • OF. Billy Hatcher [Williams, 1143 games]
  • OF. Hank Leiber [Phoenix, 813 games, 122 OPS+]
  • OF. Max Venable [Phoenix, 727 games, 64 SB]
  • SP. John Denny [Prescott, 123-108, 3.59 ERA]
  • CL. Bobby Howry [Phoenix, 65 saves, 132 ERA+]

A total of seventeen Arizona-born players were active in the majors last season, including Bobby Howry, Jeremy Affeldt, J.J.Hardy, Chris Duncan, Ian Kinsler and, potential All-Star Andre Ethier, who graduated from St. Mary's High School in Phoenix, posting a .527 batting average in his senior year. After being drafted by Oakland and traded to LA, he made his debut against the Diamondbacks in May 2006, but still lives in Chandler with his wife during the off-season. With the explosion of people to Arizona in the past decade, the number of major-leaguers from the state looks set to increase further, and the future of major-league baseball for the inhabitants of Arizona looks very healthy. I'll close with the best players who appeared in 2007. Tucson, feel the love!

The 2007 Arizona All-Stars

  • C. Doug Mirabelli [Kingman, 2007 with Boston]
  • 1B. Chris Duncan [Tucson, St. Louis]
  • 2B. Ian Kinsler [Tucson, Texas]
  • 3B. Shea Hillenbrand [Mesa, Anaheim/Los Angeles]
  • SS. J.J. Hardy [Tucson, Milwaukee]
  • OF. Andre Ethier [Phoenix, Los Angeles]
  • OF. Brian N. Anderson [Tucson, Chicago White Sox]
  • OF. Shelley Duncan [Tucson, New York Yankees]
  • SP. Brian Bannister [Scottsdale, Kansas City]
  • CL. Jeremy Accardo [Phoenix, Toronto]