November 21, 2017:
On May 23, 1960, the Yankees released 39-year-old Elmer Valo, a 20-year major league veteran who had been carving a niche as a pinch-hitter and part-time outfielder in the late 1950s. He was signed the next day by the Washington Senators, who immediately anointed the left-hand hitter as the team’s go-to bat off the bench.
Valo did not disappoint. Much as Adam Lind did for the 2017 Nationals, Valo kept getting on base. He didn’t have Lind’s power, but his batting eye was outstanding. He reached base in five of his first seven pinch-hit appearances, with two singles and three walks.
Valo’s 18 pinch-hit walks and 82 pinch-hit appearances in 1960 remain American League records. So is his career total of 91 pinch-hit base-on-balls. Two of those 1960 walks came as a Yankee, but his 14 pinch hits all came with the Senators. Also hit by a pitch once, he reached base as a Nat 32 times pinch-hitting in 75 plate appearances – a .427 on-base percentage. (Valo started just one game all season.) In comparison, in 2017 Lind had a .396 OBP with 16 pinch hits in 48 plate appearances. He was walked three times, one of them intentionally.
Valo was born Imrich Valo in Czechoslovakia in March 1921. His parents brought him to the United States when he was 6. He was a solid hitter, noted for his hustle and daring in the outfield, during his decade with the Athletics. He didn’t strike out much and drew enough walks to often have an on-base percentage over .400. (On May 1, 1949, Valo had two bases-loaded triples in a win over the Senators.) He moved with the team from Philadelphia to Kansas City in 1955. In 1957, he played with the Dodgers during that team’s last season in Brooklyn, then went with them to Los Angeles. And of course, he played with the Griffith franchise’s last season in Washington before spending part of his last season as a player in Minnesota.
When it looked like Valo’s career as a regular player was over, he had an amazing resurgence during the Athletics’ first season in Kansas City. Playing mostly against right-hand pitchers, he hit .364 with a .460 on-base percentage. It was also in 1955 that he began to make his mark as a pinch-hitter with a .452 batting average in 40 plate appearances in that role.
Elmer Valo spent several years as a coach and minor league manager for the Twins and later worked for the Phillies, for whom he also had played. He died in 1998 in Palmerton, Pa., his childhood home in America. In 2016, the Little League field there was renamed in his honor.
A version of this appeared in the The Squibber, SABR Bob Davids chapter’s quarterly newsletter, in September 2018.