A rough and tumble catcher of the 1970s and 1980s, Jim Essian’s greatest success came as a member of the South Side Hit Men, when the 1977 Chicago White Sox nearly won the AL West owing to a barrage of homers being launched out of Comiskey Park.
James Sarkis Essian was born on 2 January, 1951 in Detroit. Essian was the fourth child of thirteen kids born to an Armenian house painter and his wife. Not just good at baseball, Essian was a heck of a football player, where he was an all-state linebacker and fullback. Essian turned down scholarships from a number of interested colleges, including Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Alabama, and Texas, to play baseball – and then wasn’t even drafted.
Essian proved a pretty good catcher, though. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies as an undrafted free agent in August, 1969. He played with the Mesa Royals in 1969 in a winter rookie league, earning a second minor league contract. Sent to Pulaski in the Appalachian League and Spartanburg in the Western Carolinas League, Essian would hit .298, hit 11 homers (with 50 RBI) in just 257 at bats, and finish with a slugging percentage of .525. His best game was a five-hit, two-homer day in a 10 – 4 Spartanburg win over Anderson. Finishing with Pulaski, Essian was named to the Rookie All-Star East Team, earning an engraved silver bowl. His teammates on that all-star team included Dave Parker, Greg Gross, Sam Hairston, and Otto Velez. The season was good enough to earn a non-roster invite to spring training with the parent club.
His next season in the Phillies chain was not quite as successful from a batting standpoint, but still included many positives. Essian’s homer in the third playoff game contributed to a sweep over the Kingston Eagles, giving the Peninsula Pilots the Carolina League championship. Essian’s efforts earned another trip to spring training with the big club.
In 1972, Essian moved up to AA Reading, where he first took on the number 13 – a number that didn’t bother Essian one bit. “The No. 13 uniform is the only one that fits me properly,” said Essian. ” Tom Silicato wore No. 13 last year (and hit .329), so it can’t be too bad.” Essian got off to a great start as a hitter, was named an Eastern League All-Star in his second AA season for 1973, and even homered in the EL All-Star Game. Essian got his first cup of coffee with the Phillies that September, getting three pinch hitting at bats, tallying no hits but striking out once.
When the 1973 season ended, the Phillies sent a few players who were considered top prospects to Puerto Rico for winter ball, including Mike Schmidt, Larry Christiansen, Billy Grabarkewitz, Dick Ruthvan, and Essian. The next spring, injuries to Bob Boone and Larry Cox gave Essian a shot with the Phillies. Defensively, Essian caught a good game though his batting wasn’t up to par. Essian told a writer that spring that he wasn’t interested in spending another season in the minors – one of the first times that Essian revealed himself to be willing to talk to reporters, sometimes too easily, and demonstrating a straight-forward confidence in his ability.
Essian got a chance to demonstrate his toughness when he was ejected for his role in a fight with Derrel Thomas of the San Diego Padres. Ron Schueler brushed back Thomas with a pitch, which offended the Padres’ jack-of-all-trades. Thomas flung his bat at Schueler (he said it “slipped”), but Essian would have none of it – grabbing Thomas and getting tossed for protecting his pitcher.
His catching may have been decent, his toughness demonstrated, but hitting .100 (two hits and one ejection) wasn’t going to cut it – so Essian was dispatched to AAA Toledo, where Essian was solid behind the plate, batted .282, and fanned just 17 times in his 202 plate appearances. Essian was now demonstrating that he made regular contact and was willing to work a walk – he took 30 free passes to his 17 strikeouts in 1974 on the heels of his 1973 season where he struck out just 44 times and drew 82 walks.
Essian’s future in Philadelphia was limited, though. Boone was an established starter, Larry Cox was a capable backup, and the Phillies added veteran Tim McCarver to the mix. So, Essian was packaged in a May, 1975 deal along with Barry Bonnell and cash to the Atlanta Braves for Dick Allen (and backup catcher Johnny Oates). It was a three-way deal, though – Atlanta owed something to the Chicago White Sox for Allen’s rights, so Essian was relayed eight days later to the White Sox as the player to be named later in the original deal.
Essian was put on the White Sox roster as a third catcher behind Brian Downing and Pete Varney. Downing was young and gaining experience, while Varney was a capable backup and hitting .271. Over the next two months, Chuck Tanner and the White Sox never once put Essian into a game – despite the fact that Tanner himself had asked for Essian to be included in the Allen deal. Essian didn’t want to go to the minors, but he didn’t want to do nothing – while the White Sox were avoiding using Essian’s final minor league option. His batting eye got rusty – when Essian was finally sent to Hawaii to get some playing time, he batted just .209, though pitchers didn’t allow a run in the first 35 innings that Essian was behind the plate. Returned to the White Sox for September, Essian didn’t play that month, either.
An article in The Sporting News explained, however, that despite not playing Essian maintained a positive attitude and mental acuity through Transcendental Meditation. Essian, along with Larry Bowa, Jim Lonborg and Paul Owens, attended a four lecture program and, upon completion, began meditating twice each day for about twenty minutes each time. He would meditate at the hotel pool or even riding the train to Comiskey Park – sitting upright, folding his hands, and closing his eyes – gaining peace and clarity.
“Without T.M.,” he said, “it wouldn’t be easy for me to accept my role with the White Sox. But I know things are going to work out. I’m able to just let the thoughts come in to me. I don’t get uptight. I’m mentally ready for anything. I’ve got a few of the guys interested in T.M. (also). It can keep them from getting physically tired, too, as the season wears on. In my case, of course, there’s no way I could be tired anyway.”
In 1976, Essian was in the Majors for good – and, rather astonishingly, selected to be the alternate player representative to the union (Bucky Dent was the player rep). Paul Richards gave Essian plenty of opportunities to play, letting Downing rest or getting extra time when Downing’s elbow bothered him. Essian was the catcher the night that John “Blue Moon” Odom and Francisco Barrios combined on a no-hitter – though with eleven walks and having allowed an unearned run caused by an errant Essian throw. In September, Essian repeated his pitcher protection program in a game against the Orioles. Reggie Jackson’s showboating earned a brush back pitch from Clay Carroll. Like Thomas, Jackson fired his bat at Carroll while swinging at the next pitch – then charged the mound. Essian caught Jackson, gave him a bear hug, and completed a picture perfect tackle.
Essian finished the season with a .246 batting average in 78 games. That October, he married his wife, Janey, who was a hairstylist at the time. Then, he went to work in construction, which, paired with an exercise regimen, added strength to his 200 pound frame.
Brian Downing couldn’t stay healthy in 1977, which made Essian the starter for most of the 1977 season. That year, the White Sox picked up Richie Zisk, Oscar Gamble, Eric Soderholm and gave chances to other good hit/weak glove types like Jorge Orta, Alan Bannister, and Lamar Johnson. The Sox got off to a great start – Harry Caray was singing, the fans loved the regular displays of power, and by mid-summer were regularly calling out Sox hitters for curtain calls after homers – and even pitchers for completing games.
Despite being a big powerful player, Essian didn’t hit a home run in his first 100 games as a big leaguer. He finally did it in his 101st game, lining a Fergie Jenkins pitch off the upper deck of Comiskey Park in April. “I wanted to go into my home-run trot, but realized I didn’t have one,” said Essian, who then promised to hit more homers. He finished the season with ten. He also cost Ralph Garr a homer in July – Garr lined a shot into the left field corner that barely cleared the wall. Essian thought it was caught and retreated to first, Garr thought it was in play and raced around the bases – passing Essian. It didn’t help that umpire Nestor Chylak made a “late and somewhat vague call” – Essian scored, but Garr was counted for a single and an out.
Essian told writer Richard Dozier that, though he was usually kept around for his catching skills (Peter Gammons once said he was the third best AL catcher in calling games, and had the second quickest release), Essian felt he contributed on the offensive side, too. “I don’t think my catching and throwing are necessarily my strong points,” he said. “If I’m not doing it with the glove, I’m doing it with the stick. I bunt pretty well, I get walks. I run good even though I’m not real fast. I get a good start and I make a quick cut of the bases. I don’t get picked off and I know how to slide. I don’t miss signs and I don’t strike out.”
Dozier noted “Essian has a lot to say about this abilities, but he says things softly and they come across with a curious modesty.” So, even though Essian was starting only because Downing was injured, Essian had no problem saying, “I look at myself as a regular catcher whether I’m on the bench or not. Right now I’m in there because Brian has a sore elbow. But there’s no question I’m going to play a lot. I expect to be in more than 100 ball games.”
Essian played in 114 games, hit .273 with a .374 OBP, and added thirty extra base hits. Downing was moved to California for the 1977 season, so Essian came into spring training in 1978 thinking for the first time that he was a starter for good. Instead, manager Bob Lemon was unhappy with Essian’s attitude and slow start. So, after first sending Essian to the dog house, the White Sox sent him along with Steve Renko to the Oakland A’s for reliever Pablo Torreabla.
Joe Goddard wrote about Essian’s error in judgment in The Sporting News.
Essian was deep in the doghouse but was not aware of it until too late.
“I think they were impatient with me. I was taking my time, getting my arm into shape. They wanted me to come along quicker,” said the Detroit native, who hit .273 with 10 home runs last season after wresting the No. 1 job from Brian Downing, now with the Angels.
Essian began tunneling his own hole the first day of camp when he arrived late and said, “For the first time in my life, there’s no competition.”
Things got worse. He missed a team bus for an exhibition, was charged with four passed balls while trying to flag down Wilbur Wood’s knuckleball and was chastised for pitch calling. He was traded the day after six Royals stole bases while he was catching Wood again.
“The only time they talked to me about anything was after the passed balls with Wilbur,” he said. “I don’t know anything about the rest. It’s a joke.”
Manager Bob Lemon wasn’t laughing. “Maybe some of the others who think they’ve got it made will wake up,” he said.
The Oakland As of the late 1970s were a team in turmoil. Charles Finley had traded off all the players that made the team a perennial AL West champion earlier in the decade. This period was marked by regular trades and unhappy managers. Many had issues with young Stanley Burrell (later known as MC Hammer) feeding information about the game to Finley, who would then use the information to chew out managers. Bobby Winkles grew tired of it and two months into the 1978 season just quit. In June of 1978, high school graduate Mike Morgan was given a chance to pitch just a week after his graduation. Players were swapped all over the field (outfielder Miguel Dilone played third base once, making two errors to lose a game; Essian played second base once). Also, instead of huge happy crowds, the attendance in Oakland was barely a half million.
Essian, now eligible for salary arbitration, won two cases increasing his salary from $40,000 in 1976 to $125,000 by 1980. Essian was a regular catcher for the A’s, though his batting average and power numbers fell playing in the Oakland Coliseum. Oakland added other catchers, like Mike Heath and Jeff Newman, and the regular nicks of the job started adding up, too. He missed part of spring training in 1979 due to a fractured pinky finger. Then, Essian missed time after a Lou Whitaker foul ball fractured another finger. In 1980, it was back spasms. Trying to get him in the lineup, Essian once played third base when Wayne Gross was injured, too. His lone highlight was likely hitting an inside-the-park grand slam – helped when his former minor league all-star teammate, Otto Velez, chased a liner and stepped on the ball, twisting his knee. Velez couldn’t chase down the ball, and Essian circled the bases. A strange lowlight? Essian hit a liner that Carl Yastrzemski caught against the Green Monster – and broke a rib, ending Yaz’s 1980 season. He also injured Alvis Woods – Woods charged the mound after being hit by a Rick Langford pitch and Essian tackled Woods when Woods tried to charge the mound.
By the end of the 1980 season, Essian figured he would be traded. Instead, he signed a four-year, $1,000,000 deal with the Chicago White Sox to be their regular catcher. Bill Veeck said that trading away Essian in 1978 was “the worst trade he ever made…” – now he was back. Thinking he would be the Sox starter, Essian became the backup when Chicago landed another free agent catcher: Carlton Fisk. Bob Markus wrote about Essian’s feelings at the time:
Essian, who said at first he would rather the White Sox did not get Fisk, changed his mind by the time it became apparent they were in the running for him.
“Selfishly, I’d like to catch all the games, but I wont be selfish about it. Anyone will tell you they’ll be glad to have Fisk here and I feel the same way. I’m not disappointed, and the pitchers have to love it. It gives them a great bat in the lineup.”
Instead of starting, Essian appeared in only 27 games, getting to bat 52 times.
Essian’s willingness to say what he thought got the better of him a second time when he revealed that most of the Oakland A’s starting rotation threw spitballs in 1980. Essian claimed that Matt Keough used Vaseline, hiding it in his glove and mitt, while Langford, Mike Norris, and Steve McCatty used sweat or spit. When Essian tried to visit old teammates in the A’s clubhouse in a 1981 game, the pitchers wanted nothing to do with him. Keough said, “When a man’s an accomplice in a bank robbery, he isn’t qualified to be called to the stand as a character witness.”
After 1981, Essian was dealt to Seattle, along with Todd Cruz and Rod Allen, for Tom Paciorek. That season was derailed when Mike Hargrove ran over Essian in a play at the plate, breaking an ankle. The Indians picked up the veteran catcher where he mostly sat on the bench, until Pat Corrales took over managing the team and gave Essian a chance to play. He returned to Oakland in 1984, broke his hand and missed more than month, and was eventually released.
His playing days about done, Essian signed a deal with an independent Miami Marlins team where he eventually took over as the team’s manager. The Cubs picked him up to be a coach and manager in the minors, and when Jim Frey gave Don Zimmer the boot after a slow start in 1991, Essian got the job as top man for the Cubs. In over his head, Essian changed over coaches (Richie Zisk took over as the batting coach, Billy Connors came in to work with pitchers), used 17 lineups in 21 days, sent starter Rick Sutcliffe to the bullpen for a short while, and watched as the morale disappeared – by the end of the season, Shawon Dunston, Damon Berryhill, and Jerome Walton all demanded trades. Everyone got fired at the end of the year. As to Essian’s skill as a manager, former Cub Bill Madlock used Essian as an example as to why more blacks should be managers. Saying Herzog was the best manager and Essian was the worst, Madlock noted, “There’s a whole lot of us (meaning African-Americans) that could fall between those two. If Essian gets a job, we should all get jobs.”
Essian’s years in professional baseball ended soon after – the Cubs used him as a scout in 1992, and he was once named manager of an independent team in 1995.
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