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Hall of Fame Member Directory

Dan Driessen

Class of 2012

"He's a born hitter."

- Sparky Anderson on Dan Driessen in 1973

He was one of the finest defensive first basemen of his era. He broke into the starting lineup of one the most dominant teams in baseball history. He appeared in four playoff series and two World Series. He finished third in voting for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He crafted the best season of his career after taking the place of a Cincinnati legend. And he never played an inning of high school or college baseball. It may be hard to believe but such were the circumstances of Dan Driessen's unorthodox path to the Cincinnati Reds, a path that ultimately led him to the Reds Hall of Fame.

A native of Hilton Head, South Carolina, Driessen was born on July 29, 1951. One of eight children, Driessen was only six years old when his father died, leaving his mother, a maid, to raise the family on her own. An athletic child, he followed the lead of his older brother William. For both brothers, baseball was their preferred sport. After honing their skills on the Hilton Head sandlots in a never-ending series of pick-up games, the Driessens hoped to experience a more structured form of the game when they reached high school. Unfortunately, the school they attended did not field a team. Eventually, William began playing for a town team, the Hardeeville Boll Weevils, and Dan was eventually permitted to join as well on the condition that he play catcher. Although he had never played the position before, Dan agreed. Being thrust into a new position on the baseball field, a challenge that began with the Boll Weevils, soon became one of the running themes of Dan's early professional career.

But the Boll Weevils were not exactly known for producing professional baseball players. Dan had given the notion little thought despite the fact that he excelled on the club. He was contemplating joining the Air Force. Dan's talent was readily apparent to Hal Young, the Hardeeville High School teacher who had founded the Boll Weevils. What he saw in Driessen was an impressive combination of a quick bat and above-average speed on the base paths. Driessen's talent was raw but unmistakable.

In the summer of 1969, Young wrote in a letter to several Major League clubs detailing the talents of William (who pitched for Young) and Dan Driessen. Only two clubs responded to the letter. The Braves got to the Driessens first and passed on them. The second club to respond, the Reds, instructed Dan to report to their Asheville farm club for a tryout. Brother William was not invited as the Reds believed him to be too old to embark on a pro career. Many years after he had established himself in the Major Leagues, Dan was insistent in his belief that William could have been a Major Leaguer as well had he been given the chance. Dan always thought that William was the better player.

The Reds scouts liked what they saw in Dan. He was raw and his lack of formal baseball training was obvious but there was talent there. And so it was that the Reds offered Driessen a contract to play professional baseball. The club's investment in him was minimal: A Reds yearbook, a few decals and a plane ticket to Tampa, Florida, home of the Reds' Single A minor league team.

Only three games into his professional career, Driessen was told that he was changing positions. It was obvious to the Reds that he had no future as a catcher. He was being moved to first base, a position he had never played before in his life. "I had to go out and buy a mitt," Driessen recalled. Beset by homesickness and the pressure of learning a new position, Driessen struggled but refused to quit. The Reds liked the way the ball came off his bat and assured him that things would fall into place for him if he kept working. They were right. The next season, his first full year in the pro ranks and his second with Tampa, Driessen blossomed. He hit .327 with 17 stolen bases and an on-base-percentage of .449. His defense was vastly improved as well.

His strong performance in 1971 earned him a promotion to the AA level. Talent evaluators throughout the Reds organization had taken note of the remarkable strides he had made and became convinced that he was a legitimate Major League prospect whose bat might already be Major League-ready. The problem they foresaw was one that would bedevil Driessen for the next five seasons. While his bat was ready, he was a player without a position. Slated to man first base for the Reds in 1972 was All-Star Tony Perez, whose move to the position had been made possible by the trade that sent first baseman Lee May to the Astros in exchange for a package of players that included second baseman Joe Morgan. Perez had been the Reds' starting third baseman for the bulk of his career but the club had never been happy with his defensive shortcomings at the position and was anxious to move him from the spot.

Faced with a dearth of third base prospects, it was determined that Dan Driessen would become a third baseman. For the third time in his three-year career, Driessen was asked to learn a new position. He played a considerable amount at third with the Reds' AA Three Rivers farm club in 1972 and while he struggled at the position, he continued to hit and get on base, posting a .322 average with .404 on-base-percentage. His performance earned him an invitation to the Reds' Major League camp the following spring and despite impressing the Reds' brass and Manager Sparky Anderson with his hitting, it was agreed that Driessen needed more seasoning. He was sent to the Reds' AAA farm club in Indianapolis where it was thought that he would spend the season as the Indians' starting third baseman. The play of Dan Driessen and that of the Reds in 1973 would soon force a change in plans.

By 1973, the Reds had established themselves as one of the best teams in baseball. The "Big Red Machine" had one two of the last three National League pennants and their corps of young talent seemed to have them primed to win many more. It was not hoped that the Reds would win, they were expected to. During the first two months of the 1973 season, the Reds were losing as many games as they were winning. The biggest culprit in the Reds' lackluster start was an offense that was not producing. The team clearly needed a spark and it had only to look about 100 miles to the West to find Dan Driessen tearing up American Association pitching. After 47 games with the Indians, Driessen was batting .407 and slugging .630, incredible numbers for a player at any level. With the Reds' offense sputtering, Driessen got the call of a lifetime: At the age of 21, with barely three full seasons of minor league experience, he was going to the Major Leagues.

Driessen's debut on June 9 in the Reds' nationally-televised game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field was something of a microcosm of the next two years of his career. Starting at third base and slotted in the sixth spot in the batting order. At the plate, Driessen contributed a double and a walk in a seven-run ninth inning rally as the Reds overcame a 4-1 deficit to win, 8-4. On the defensive side, he botched the first two balls hit to him. A valuable bat that was ready to hit Major League pitching but saddled with a glove that was not ready for Major League fielding became the standard assessment of Driessen.

Despite his defensive challenges, Driessen provided that spark that the Reds were looking for. The club's hitting improved and Driessen eventually worked his way up to the third spot in the order, a position traditionally reserved for a club's best hitter. Beginning on July 1, when reserve catcher Hal King beat the Dodgers with a dramatic ninth-inning home run, the Reds went on a 60-26 tear that culminated in the club's third Western Division championship in four seasons. Driessen continued to hit throughout the Reds' run, finishing the season with a .301 average that putt him in the mix for NL rookie of the Year honors. Sparky Anderson, admittedly not the most unbiased of observers felt Driessen deserved the award. "There's no doubt in my mind he's the best rookie in the league, "Anderson said. "He's done it all as long as he's been with us."

Despite Anderson's advocacy, Driessen finished third in voting for the league's top rookie award. Of much greater significance was the Reds' stunning lost to the heavy underdog Mets in the playoffs, a loss aided by a defensive lapse by Driessen in the series' fifth and deciding game. The Reds may have been one of the game's most talented teams but they were quickly developing a reputation for following regular-season dominance with postseason underachievement. Entering the 1974 season, the pressure on the Reds to get over the postseason hope had grown exponentially. The Reds had named Driessen their starting third baseman in spring training and while he gamely tried to master the position, approaching the task with the stoic determination that became one of his trademarks, it simply wasn't to be. He continued to hit well but his play at third did not improve to the level needed to keep him at the position. Driessen's defensive struggles were but one of the notable disappointments of the 1974 season as the Reds won 98 games but finished four games behind the Dodgers in a spirited NL West race. Disappointing though the Reds' postseason failures had been the previous two seasons, they paled in comparison to failing to make the postseason at all.

The 1975 season was shaping up to be a pivotal one for the Reds as sentiment was growing that if the club did not finally fulfill its considerable promise and win a championship, major changes might be in the offing. For Dan Driessen, the 1975 season proved to be bittersweet. He watched from the bench as the Reds finally found a solution to their third base dilemma when Pete Rose was moved to the position in May. The decision to move Rose to third was one of the most significant in reds history as it resulted in the creation of the fabled "Great Eight" lineup that dominated the National League for the next two seasons and finally brought the Reds the championships that had eluded the club throughout the decade.

Dan Driessen watched the Great Eight coalesce with mixed feelings. Reduced to spot starts at first base and in the outfield and asked to pinch-hit, Driessen was elated to be part of a championship club but frustrated that he was not able to play with greater regularity. "It was so hard to sit for two years," Driessen later recalled. "It was just super difficult just keeping your head together. Fielding and batting practice were the only reason for me to take showers after the games. It makes you feel guilty." But Driessen never complained. He did what he was told and hoped that in time, circumstances would change.

Through it all, the Reds never stopped believing in Driessen's talent. His performance as the Reds' designated hitter in the 1976 World Series (Driessen was the first DH in NL history) provided additional confirmation of this belief. Reds General Manager Bob Howsam was an advocate of the Branch Rickey principle that it was always better to trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late. The understanding that Driessen was being groomed to replace Tony Perez had been in place ever since Driessen's impressive rookie season. The 1975 decision by arbitrator Peter Seitz that effectively put an end to baseball's reserve clause and resulted in the creation of free agency also factored into the Reds' analysis of their options at first base. Perez was 34, an age at which most players experience a decline in production and would soon be eligible for free agency. Driessen was only 25, an age at which most players are on the verge of their peak production and was a much more inexpensive player.

The loss of starting pitcher Don Gullett to the Yankees as a free agent which created a hole in the rotation that needed finally forced the Reds' hand. On December 16, 1976, the Reds traded Perez to the Montreal Expos for pitchers Woodie Fryman and Dale Murray. Dan Driessen would be the Reds' starting first baseman for the 1977 season.

The task that lay ahead of Driessen was a daunting one. Perez had not only been a leading player in the most dominant lineup in Reds history but he had also been one of the most popular players to ever wear a Reds uniform. In the wake of the trade, Driessen was quick to let fans and teammates know that he fully appreciated what Perez had meant to the club. "Tony Perez was my idol. Everybody asks me how I replace Perez. I don't. I don't even think about that. I just go out and do what I do and hope that will be enough." His teammates, though saddened by Perez'a departure supported Driessen. "Sure he took Tony's place," said Joe Morgan. "But I want him to do good. He's a teammate. I'm rooting for him. He sat on the bench for two years knowing he could hit in the big leagues. Anyone else would can hit like him would have been raising hell. He didn't."

Indeed, Driessen had remained largely silent during his two-year exodus from the starting lineup. Unfortunately for him, as the 1977 season got underway his bat was largely silent as well. Perhaps it was fitting (one observer described it as overdue justice) that Driessen's coming out party in 1977 coincided with Perez's first game in Cincinnati since the trade. It was June 10 and while Perez received ovation after ovation from the home crowd, Driessen stole the show, going 3-5 with a home run and 3RBI in the Reds' 13-1 victory. He had entered the series against the Expos with a .261 average. He would end the season at an even .300 with 17 home runs, 91RBI and 31 stolen bases, a club record for a first baseman. He also provided stellar defense at first base, establishing himself as one of the best defensive players in the game. In the face of incredible pressure, Driessen had delivered.

Over the next five seasons, Driessen was a steady, reliable presence in the Reds' lineup, helping the Reds to another division title in 1979 and to baseball's best overall record in 1981. And while his tenure as the Reds' starting first baseman will always be overshadowed by the glory of the championship seasons of 1975 and 1976, his contributions to the club cannot be denied. He was a constant during a period of difficult change for the Reds as the often painful transition from the Big Red Machine era unfolded.

A true team player, Driessen was always willing to try a new position or a new spot in the batting order. He accepted these assignments without complaint and harbored no ill will for having to wait for the chance to play the position at which he was so gifted. It's difficult to take the place of a legend. In 1977, Dan Driessen was asked to do just that and did it about as well as it could have been done. It was the finest season of a distinguished career, a career that is often lost amidst the towering achievements of the Big Red Machine, but one that certainly should not be forgotten.

Daniel Driessen
Bats:
Left
Throws:
Right
Height:
5' 11"
Weight:
187
Born:
July 29, 1951, Hilton Head, SC
High School:
Hardeeville High School, Hardeeville, (SC)
How Acquired:
Signed by the Cincinnati Reds as an amateur free agent on August 29, 1969
Debut:
June 9, 1973 vs.
Final Game:
October 23, 1987 vs.
Inducted
into the Reds Hall of Fame 2012
Reds Career Statistics
Career Statistics for Dan Driessen
G AB R H TB 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG OPS
1480 4717 661 1277 1962 240 23 133 670 678 79 639 152 60 .271 .361 .416 .777
Full Career Statistics »
Player image for Daniel Driessen

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