Normally, I do these things on birthdays but since Mr. Futch was kind enough to visit my site and leave a few kind words I decided to scan through various online resources and see if I couldn’t assemble a quick sketch of the wiry contact hitter. Only then did I realize that his birthday is next week…
Ike Jerry Futch was born in Spearsville, LA to Marie (Smith) and Joseph R. Futch on 31 January in the same year as my father, 1941 – he was named for his paternal grandfather, Issac. Futch was one of nine Futch boys and girls, all of whom had some athletic skill. His three sisters were fantastic basketball players and played baseball with the brothers. Ike says that had there been softball for girls at that time, they all would have played. As for the brothers, most of them were named after members of the New York Giants – oldest Frankie was named for Frankie Frisch, Terry was named after Bill Terry, and Joe Rigney was named, in part, after Bill Rigney. Anyway, living on a farm in a small town on the northern edge of Louisiana, the Futch kids and their friends would make their own balls and bats. Ike remembered taking the rubber ball off of a paddle ball, wrapping it in yarn or twine, and then covering it with electrical tape or white gauze. Bats were carved out of local saplings. All of them played baseball through the spring and summer, and at night would take turns putting a hand behind the family radio to help the antenna pick up St. Louis Cardinal games.
In 1959, the Spearsville High nine was pretty good, despite the fact that the roster covered but five or six families in the town. In fact, his oldest brother, Frankie, would be the manager of his high school baseball and basketball team. In his senior year, Futch led his Spearsville High School team to the state championship in Baton Rouge, where Ike pounded the ball and fielded everything cleanly in front of a number of major league scouts. Turning down a college scholarship to play for Northeastern Louisiana, Ike was signed out of high school by the Yankees as a quick and sure-handed shortstop and dispatched to the Nebraska State League. There, playing for Kearney, Futch would lead the league in hitting by batting .319 and earned a spot on the league’s All-Star team. Moved up from his D level league to Modesto of the California League, Futch was again selected to the league’s All-Star team – this time as a second baseman – and cleared .300, this time hitting .311. He also ran off a 19-game hitting streak.
Futch continued his ascent up the minor league ladder stopping in Augusta in the South Atlantic (SALLY) League, where he kept his batting average over .300, and continued to make the league’s All-Star teams (in 1962, he was on the same All-Star squad as Tony Oliva and Elmo Plaskett). The 1963 team won the Sally League, but the lack of attendance killed the team. In 1964, most of the Augusta team was moved to Columbus where Futch was the highest vote getter among All-Star infielders. Futch’s teammates on that all-star team included Lee May, Roy White, and Ferguson Jenkins. Among his better games was a five for six day with two doubles and a triple in an 11 – 3 win over Chattanooga on 28 August 1964. He also set a league record by getting seven consecutive hits over two games.
By this time Futch was earning a reputation as the hardest man in baseball to strikeout. In 1963, Futch broke a 60 year-old record by fanning just four times in 590 at bats. After visiting a vision care specialist, Futch noted, “They said I had sharper vision than the average fellow; that I pick up a lot of extra detail.” (“Futch Still Hard to Fan”, The Sporting News, 19 June 1965, Page 43.) Futch claims, though, that he learned to make contact by playing game outside a local garage where one kid would snap bottle caps while the other was swinging at the cap with a broomstick. “You could make those bottle caps spin and really curve, and it was hard to make contact using the broomstick,” Futch told me. “After a while, though, I got to where I could hit the cap just about every time.”
The Yankees, however, had Horace Clarke and a few other young infielders and let Futch go to St. Louis where he joined the Tulsa Oilers. Futch whiffed just five times in 569 at bats, finishing at .290 – the first time he hadn’t batted at least .300 in the minors. With Futch and guys like Walt “No Neck” Williams, Hal Gilson, and Danny Breeden, Tulsa went 81 – 60 and was among the best minor league teams Tulsa fans had seen. The Oilers may have lost the playoff series to Albuquerque, but it was the first time that Tulsa had finished first in its division.
Futch would be drafted by Oklahoma City in the Pacific Coast League for the 1966 season. There, he got off to a bit of a slow start only to have his season and knee crumble when he was bowled over at second while Bob (Shorty) Raudman tried to break up a double play. Raudman had carried a grudge going back at least a season when he got into a brawl during a game against the Oilers, coming out on the wrong end of someone’s punch, and took it out on Futch. His left knee required surgery and he wouldn’t return until the following May. It cost Futch his shot at the majors. Days earlier, Houston Astros second baseman Joe Morgan was hit by a line drive during batting practice that broke Morgan’s knee cap, costing the future Hall of Famer forty games. Certainly Futch would have been in line for at least a short term trip to help the big club either to start in Morgan’s place or become a backup infielder in Morgan’s absence. Instead, Futch was shelved and would never play for Oklahoma City again.
Futch returned, but to Amarillo in the Texas League. On his second day back, he smacked a rally igniting triple off of reliever Dale Morgan to key a win over Albuquerque. Such heady days were few, however, and at the end of the season he was released, ending his baseball career before his 27th birthday.
As a player, and just going by what I have read, Futch sounds like a poor man’s version of Glenn Beckert – a good contact hitter with little power, could bunt, batted second behind a quick shortstop (for many years, he batted behind Ronnie Retton), and the one note about his fielding was that he was sure-handed with a “good enough” arm. In an essay on his future teammate, Dooley Womack, I noted that Womack was a smallish 6′ 0″ and 170 pounds. If Womack was small for that size, Futch couldn’t be much different and might have looked even smaller – he was listed as the same size… He was quick but not fast and when his knee was injured he must have lost some mobility and, having missed a year, he wasn’t making crisp enough contact to get hits. When he joined the Cards, they had plenty of good infielders going through the system, so he was caught in a numbers game. Still – it was a nice career… Futch had more than 1000 minor league hits and I’d be stunned if he struck out more than 100 times in the nine seasons he played.
Futch and his bride, Brenda (who also went to Spearsville High School) returned to Louisiana for good. Futch went to college at Louisiana Tech, got involved in a couple of decent business ventures, and the two now happily spend time being grandparents.
Before I wrap this up… There was one rather interesting article written about Futch in The Sporting News just after completing his first season. Bill Veeck had been talking about the future demise of the Yankees at the end of the 1959 season saying that, thanks to the deaths of three significant minor league scouts, the Yankee dynasty would soon end. It took longer than Veeck thought, but he was right. Anyway – in the middle of this discussion, there appeared the following article:
“Bill Veeck was on TV saying the Yankee collapse didn’t stem from any breakdown at the field level but traced to the farm system and the front office. What he meant was that Casey Stengel could go only as far as his material would permit him and that the material had dried up. Veeck said, too, that it would be slim Yankee pickings for the next couple of years, a statement scarcely calculated to calm George Weiss, the Yankee major-domo.
“Veeck is an omnivorous reader but chances are that he missed a name among the Yankee farmhands, one which would have caused him to be a little less positive. There’s a youth named Ike Futch on the Yankees’ Nebraska State League farm in Kearney. Apart from the fact that he hit .320 this season, how could a kid named Ike Futch miss becoming a star?
“And even if I.F. never makes it, he becomes an automatic winner of the Fladgett Zunk Memorial Sweepstakes for whatever year he first reports to the Yankees in spring training. Fladgett who?
“A decade ago, when Branch Rickey set up his production-line operation for the Dodgers in Vero Beach, one of the minor league aspirants was a boy named Fladgett Zunk. His name fascinated one of the writers who had nothing better to do than to go searching for unusual names. He set up a yearly prize for the most unusual name in Vero Beach. The next year it was won by Gaylord Lemis, who could still be somewhere in the Dodger chain.
“Odbert Hamric was a winner one year and when the Dodgers brought him up briefly, they deglamorized him by dropping the “Od” and making it plain Bert Hamric.
“The Yankees have a winner, surely, in Ike Futch. Try dropping a syllable off that.”
Rosenthal, Harold. “Such as Futch Much Too Few”, The Sporting News, September 23, 1959, Pg 8.
Other sources in TSN:
Notes – Page 54, 7/13/1960
Notes – Page 42, 9/21/1960
“Futch Still Hard to Fan” – Page 43, 6/19/1965
“Ike Futch Out for Season” – Page 53, 7/16/1966
Notes – Page 33, 5/27/1967
Interview with Ike Futch, March 2013.
Other online sources:(Link to story noting Morgan’s knee injury.)
(Note – updated on 1/24 to include Mr. Futch’s feedback regarding the timing of his knee injury as well as to cite the timing of Morgan’s knee injury in 1966. Also, thanks to a reader for noting I had the wrong nickname for Tulsa – I have been to Drillers games and the name was stuck in my head – and I have since added information about Futch’s childhood based on spending the better part of a day talking about his life before baseball a couple of months ago. Eventually, this will change from being a blog post to being a full length biography.)