Monday, February 21, 2011

Random Past Phillie: John Wockenfuss

Good to be back, everyone! At long last, "Random Past Phillies" returns. There could be some changes in store for this season. In addition to profiles of past players, I'm also planning on featuring random past games and/or seasons. Feedback and suggestions are always welcome.

Shout out to BL Chris for the suggestion of this Random Past Phillie

Name: Johnny Bilton Wockenfuss
Position: Catcher/Utility
Born: February 27, 1949 in Welch, West Virginia
Acquired: From the Detroit Tigers along with Glenn Wilson in exchange for Dave Bergman and Willie Hernandez on March 24, 1984
Phillies Debut: April 6, 1984
Final Phillies Game: August 15, 1985
Uniform Numbers: 15, 14
Career Elsewhere: Tigers (1974-83)

About John Wockenfuss: In baseball and life in general, we all want to make our mark, to be remembered in some way. Sometimes it takes unorthodox methods to do just that. The road less traveled was the one taken by Johnny B. Wockenfuss, a career backup best remembered for his unusual name and unique batting stance. His acquisition was one of two unfortunate deals made by the defending National League Champion Phillies during the spring of 1984 that put an end to the franchise's first Golden Age and sent the club spiraling into a malaise that (aside from the glorious 1993 season) lasted the better part of two decades.

Like many players featured on Random Past Phillies, the professional baseball career of John Wockenfuss began without fanfare as he was selected in the 42nd round of the 1967 Draft by the second incarnation of the Washington Senators, who would relocate to Texas and become the Rangers following the 1971 season. Wockenfuss would spend six years in the Senators/Rangers organization, never reaching the big leagues. During the 1973 season, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in a deal that sent pitcher Jim Bibby (whose brother Henry was a point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers from 1976-80 and later served as an assistant coach for the team) to Texas.

Wockenfuss spent the remainder of the '73 campaign in the St. Louis system, but was on the move again in the offseason that followed, as the Cards shipped him to Detroit. He would finally make his MLB debut as a member of the Tigers on August 11, 1974. It wasn't exactly the stuff legends are made of, as Wockenfuss would collect just four hits in 33 at-bats during his initial callup. He would appear in 35 games for the Tigers in 1975, hitting .229 with four home runs and 13 RBI. Wockenfuss would eventually settle into a utility role for Detroit, as he saw action behind the plate as well as both corner positions in the infield and outfield. Wockenfuss had some pop, hitting nine homers in 53 games in 1977, then going deep 15 times in 87 games in 1979. His best season was 1980, when he hit .274 with 16 homers and 65 RBI in 126 games, the only season in which he appeared in more than 100 games. After three more seasons in Detroit, Wockenfuss would become a Phillie late in Spring Training of 1984.

The spring of 1984 was a busy time for the Phillies, who had been defeated by the Baltimore Orioles in the previous fall's World Series. As the season approached, the club decided to tinker with its roster. On March 24, they sent outfield prospect Alejandro Sanchez to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for first baseman Dave Bergman. The Phils then flipped Bergman and reliever Willie Hernandez to the Tigers for Wockenfuss and outfielder Glenn Wilson. Two days later, the Phillies dealt reigning NLCS MVP Gary "Sarge" Matthews along with outfielder Bob Dernier and reliever Porfirio Altamirano to the Chicago Cubs, receiving reliever Bill Campbell and first baseman/outfielder Mike Diaz in return. The deals proved disastrous for the Phillies, who fell to 81-81 in 1984, finishing in fourth place. Hernandez would go 9-3 with 32 saves and a 1.92 ERA in 80 games in '84, taking home both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards for the World Champion Tigers, while Bergman would spend nine seasons in Detroit as a key reserve. Matthews and Dernier were valuable contributors for a Cubs team that won the NL East and came within one win of reaching the 1984 World Series. Campbell would spend one unmemorable year in the Phillies bullpen, while Diaz spent two seasons in the minors for the Phils without a callup to the parent club. Wilson had the most productive stint in Philadelphia of that group, driving in 102 runs and making the National League All-Star team in 1985, while twice leading NL outfielders in assists and coming in second one other time in his four seasons as a Phillie.

As for Wockenfuss, he turned in a decent 1984 season, hitting .289 with six home runs and 24 RBI in 86 games. The bulk of his playing time came at first base, a position where a huge void had been created thanks to the departures of the ancient Pete Rose and Tony Perez along with the quick realization that the "First Baseman of the Future" experiment with Len Matuszek wasn't going to pan out. Wockenfuss also made 21 appearances behind the plate during the '84 campaign. Unfortunately, 1985 would be a much different story as Wockenfuss hit just .162 in 32 games and was released on August 19 of that season. The Phillies would go 75-87 in '85, their first losing season since 1974. Wockenfuss was finished as a player following his release from the Phillies. He would coach and manage in the minors from 1987-97, spending time in the organizations of the Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates as well as the independent leagues.

Personal recollection: When I do these profiles, I'm usually able to produce an anecdote or two. Usually some obscure moment from a game I attended or something of that nature. When John Wockenfuss played in his final game as a Phillie, I was eight days away from celebrating my fifth birthday. So I'll have to come clean on this one and admit that although I'm aware of Wockenfuss, I have no recollection of him playing.

That said, Wockenfuss is a pretty damn cool name. He was a fan favorite during his years with the Tigers, and maybe he would've been the same with the Phillies had he played with them just a few years earlier. I do remember looking at an old Phillies yearbook, and the picture of Wockenfuss showed him in the batting cage during Spring Training. Nothing special there, although I noticed that in the picture, there were several balls behind him in the cage. Now, who knows if all those were from him, but it was obviously not a very flattering picture. Wockenfuss played in an era where many players had closed batting stances, and he took his to the extreme, holding the bat high in the air with his back seemingly turned towards the pitcher. I also thought the graying hair and big bushy beard made Wockenfuss look a like a werewolf. Hey, whatever works.

That's my story on John Wockenfuss. Not much from a personal recollection standpoint, so feel free to share your own


  1. Career stats for John Wockenfuss:

  2. The game I remember Wockenfuss the most for was Saturday, June 9, 1984 at Veterans Stadium. He hit two HR's that day and led the Phillies to a 6-5 W versus the cross state Pirates. The part that really stuck out was that Wockenfuss hit 2 Hrs, but also one of the HR's may have been the oddest I have ever seen in person. The ball actually got lodged in between the two panels of the left centerfield wall all the way up at the yellow line. Bruce Froemming got the call correct from his station at 2B with one finger circle of a Wockenfuss dinger. Hard to believe Harry!!!

  3. A YouTube video of Wockenfuss at bat for the Tigers in 1982:

  4. Nice write up. I was going thru some old photos from a fan appreciation day back in 84-85 and I have a pic of him with the #14 uniform on.

    I was wondering what became of him.

    You can't forget that name for sure!

  5. Magee has not been featured, but he'll go in the suggestion box

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. By 1985 I was 9 years old and I remember Wockenfuss because somebody had given us tickets right behind the plate and up aginst the screen. Seated there nearby was this old man who surely wont be alive now who was yelling to Wockenfuss "HEY WOCK! I'll give you a whloe case of bubblegum if you hit one over the wall"! My dad thought that is was the funniest thing and talked about it for years to come. As a result I have never forgotten John Wockenfuss

  8. I played ball with John in HS and now would like to give him a call. My name is walt willis and we moved to ID 15 years ago.