GUS TRIANDOS – 1958 Most Valuable Oriole
The Most Valuable Oriole of 1958 treated fans to the most prolific display of power by any Baltimore player of the decade.
Gus Triandos grew up in San Francisco, the son of a tanner who emigrated from Greece. With flat feet and speed to turn doubles into singles, scouts didn’t beat down his door to ink him to a contract, but the Yankees signed him for about $2,500 after he switched from third base to catcher in his final year of high school. After three years in the low minors, Triandos spent 1951-52 in the Army, then finally reached the majors late in 1953 after opening eyes with a number of tape measure homers for Birmingham.
The catching job in the Bronx belonged to Yogi Berra, so Triandos learned to play first-base, but only appeared in twenty major league games over two seasons. He’d have to go somewhere else to get a real opportunity, but he never dreamed it would be Baltimore. “Here’s one place I know I’ll never be traded to,” Triandos told his wife as he drove through Charm City on his way to winter ball after the 1954 season. However, Triandos became a member of the Orioles a few weeks later as part of a 17-player trade that radically altered the roster.
As Baltimore’s regular first baseman in 1955, he led the club with a modest twelve homers, most of them clubbed to left-centerfield. Red Sox great Ted Williams told Triandos that -at 6’3″, 215-pounds- he should pull the ball more to generate more power, so Triandos switched to a lighter bat and improved his home run total to 21 the following year. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the fences at vast Memorial Stadium were shortened a bit. Triandos returned to catching most of the time and, in 1957, he made his first All-Star team and hit 19 more home runs. Incredibly, one of the was an inside-the-park job in Baltimore. Though he wasn’t the most agile receiver in the league behind the plate, his strong throwing arm helped him cut down two-thirds of opposing base stealers.
Some fans rode him a bit as his batting average drooped from the high-.270’s to .254 and, when he responded to some of the hecklers late in the year, there was speculation that Triandos might be traded.
The Orioles could not afford to lose their biggest power bat, especially considering it belonged to a conscientious, hard worker who made his home in Baltimore during the off-season. Triandos got a significant raise, plus an added bonus when the fences at Memorial Stadium were moved in again. The power alleys, 447-feet away when Triandos arrived in 1955, would now measure 380, a full twenty-five feet closer than they’d been made just two seasons before.
Triandos cleared the new barrier against the Senators in both games of the season opening series, seeming more ready than ever to live up to nicknames like “Gus Tremendous”, and the “Golden Greek”.
However, a bizarre defensive slump saw him commit seven errors in the Orioles first seventeen games, including miscues in six straight contests. This, after muffing only five plays in the entire 1957 season! He settled down and flubbed only three more times all year.
Triandos soon found his groove at the plate also, batting .305 with twelve home runs in a 41-game stretch. There was a game-winning blast against the Red Sox in Baltimore on May 11, then a pair of longballs in Detroit ten days later. June proved to be his most productive month, as he tallied nine homers and 23 runs batted in.
Though an otherwise putrid offense had Baltimore bumbling in seventh place on June 27, Triandos’ 16 homers ranked third in the American League, and his batting average was a solid .285. Eleven days later, when the All-Star Game was played at Memorial Stadium, Triandos was the only Oriole in the starting lineup after being voted in by his fellow players.
Triandos made a throwing error trying to cut down Willie Mays on a stolen base attempt in the top of the second, but he delighted the crowd with a sharp single in the bottom of the inning. When Casey Stengel pinch-hit Berra for Triandos four frames later, the Baltimore fans booed so long and loud that Warren Brown of the Chicago American was moved to write “If there’s a prize for the most vociferous fans as a group, it will have to go to Baltimore.”
Triandos consoled Berra by telling him “That’s how they are Yogi. You ought to hear them get on me here as a regular proposition during the season.”
Triandos slumped through most of July, though the Orioles managed their only winning month all year. He battled a jammed left thumb and a mysterious back strain as the calendar turned to August, but managed a grand slam off Hall-of-Fame right-hander Jim Bunning -and a season high five RBI- on August 2. Though it helped the Orioles overcome a 5-0 deficit, they lost the game 8-7 in the midst of an eleven-game losing streak. Baltimore finally broke through with a victory a week later in Washington, thanks in part to back-to-back homers by Bob Nieman and Triandos. Gus’ shot was his 22nd of the season, breaking his own club record. He smashed a 425-foot blast into the centerfield seats at Griffith Stadium the next day for number 23. Triandos next home run was a three-run bomb to beat the Tigers at Memorial Stadium, and he reached 25 by the end of August by clearing the Green Monster at Fenway.
The wear and tear of catching more games than any receiver in the league in 1958 took its’ toll as Triandos batted only .195 in September, dropping his season average to .245. In the last game of the year though, he attempted -successfully- the only stolen base of his major league career.
His home run total increased to 28 by the time the Orioles opened their final homestand of the season on September 19. Baltimore trailed the Yankees 4-0 entering the bottom of the ninth, but Triandos’ two-run homer ignited a five-run rally for an Orioles win! The next day was even better.
The Orioles had knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm on the mound, four weeks after picking him up on waivers from Cleveland. The future Hall-of-Famer had pitched well all year, but didn’t have a win as a starter and sported a 2-10 record overall. It was a drizzly afternoon, with the game on national TV, and Triandos made one of his signature great throws in the third inning to catch Bobby Richardson trying to steal after a walk. Wilhelm’s fluttering deliveries had the Yankees so mixed up that they didn’t have a hit through seven innings, but the Orioles managed only one of their own against Don Larsen.
Former AL MVP Bobby Shantz relieved Larsen following the seventh inning stretch, and Triandos greeted him with an arching 425-blast to dead centerfield for his 30th home run of the year. Not only did it tie Berra’s record at the time for homers by an AL catcher, it proved to be the only run of the game as Wilhelm hung on to to no-hit the Yankees.
“That was my big thrill,” Triandos said a year later. “And getting to Baltimore is the greatest stroke of luck that ever happened to me.”
Ironically, Wilhelm -at least his unpredictable pitches- gave Triandos such fits in later years that he spent sleepless nights with heartburn dreading going to the ballpark to catch. It got so bad that Orioles manager Paul Richards stopped telling Triandos when Wilhelm was going to pitch. Catching the knuckler wasn’t something that you could practice, Triandos lamented. To him, it seemed to get more difficult with time.
A succession of hand injuries plagued Triandos after 1958, driving down his numbers, and getting the fans on his back. Though he walloped 25 homers and made his third straight All-Star team in 1959, his average dipped to .216. It didn’t help that he never hit particularly well at Memorial Stadium, which was still too big a park for his liking.
The combination of the park, catching Wilhelm and heckling fans prompted Triandos to ask for a trade following the 1961 season, but he stayed in Baltimore one more year and hit an embarrassing .159 in 66 games. By then, his weight ballooned to 234 pounds.
“They said I dogged it over there and -I don’t know- maybe I did,” he said after getting traded to the Tigers. “I’d go 0-4, and it wouldn’t bother me. That’s not a very good situation.”
“I know a lot of people think I didn’t like Baltimore,” said Triandos. “But the only thing I didn’t like was the park.”
Triandos wrapped up a 13-year major league career with Houston in 1965. Of his 167 big league homers, 142 of them came in a Baltimore uniform. The first 30-homer man in franchise history entered the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1981. Now 77-years-old, he resides in San Jose, CA.
by MALCOLM ALLEN