Profile by BCB reader rlpete
Ask a group of 1960's and 1970's era Cub fans what they remember about Don Kessinger and more than a few will likely say the same thing. They remember Kessinger going far to his right (see photo above for a good example of this!), gloving the ball and then in one graceful motion leaping in the air and throwing to first base to retire the batter. Defense and durability was what Don Kessinger brought to the Cubs for 11 years as the starting shortstop.
Donald Eulon Kessinger was born on July 17, 1942 in Forrest City, Arkansas. He attended the University of Mississippi where he was an all-SEC player in both baseball and basketball from 1962 to 1964. He also received All-America honors in both sports in 1964. Don was signed by the Cubs in 1964 for $25,000. After a short minor league stint at Dallas-Fort Worth, he made his major league debut in September of 1964 and picked up 12 AB as a late season call-up.
Prior to the 1965 season, the Cubs traded Andre Rodgers to Pittsburgh for shortstop Roberto Pena, in a deal that was supposed to make the club "younger". During spring training of that year, the shortstop position for the Cubs was wide open. Ron Santo even petitioned to play shortstop but he was rejected as the Cubs "were returning to professionalism" according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. By Opening Day 1965, Pena had beat out Kessinger and veteran Jimmy Stewart for the starting shortstop position. However by June, Pena was struggling both with the bat and the glove (think of him as the 1960's version of Ronny Cedeno) and on June 12th, Don was recalled from the minors and installed as the starting shortstop. Don Kessinger now joined fellow rookie Glenn Beckert along with veterans Ron Santo and Ernie Banks to form the famous Cubs infield which stayed intact from 1965 through the heartbreaking 1969 season.
The young Kessinger struggled badly in 1965, leading the league in errors (28) and hitting only .201. However, in spite of the errors, Don showed the excellent range at SS that he became most noted for. The Cubs "head coach" (the last of the "College of Coaches"), Lou Klein, stuck with him through the 1965 struggles and by 1966 under new skipper Leo Durocher, Kessinger had settled in as the starting shortstop. 1966 was also the first year that Don started switch-hitting, something he had never done seriously before on any level. The batting results were impressive as the average improved to .274, his career high. Defensively the errors were still evident (35) but Don was quickly gaining the reputation as a very promising fielder. Even with the improved batting average in 1966, Don's OBP and SLG were still an unimpressive .306 and .302 respectively.
Unfortunately, his batting struggles returned in 1967 and 1968 with averages of .231 and .240 -- although, viewed in the lower-hitting context of the time, particularly in 1968, and in an era when middle infielders weren't expected to hit, those don't look quite so bad. However, his defense improved after 1966. The error total in 1967 decreased to 19 and Gold Gloves later followed in 1969 and 1970. By 1968, Don was recognized as one of the best shortstops in the league and was awarded All-Star Game honors from 1968 through 1972 and again in 1974. He also set a (since-broken) National League record when he started the 1969 season with 54 errorless games.
Don's best all-round season was 1969. In addition to the errorless streak, he hit .273 with career highs in home runs (4), slugging (.361), hits (181), runs (109 - 4th in the NL), doubles (38 - 2nd in the NL) and RBI's (53). Unfortunately, while 1969 was his best season, Don, like the Cubs slumped down the stretch hitting only .223 in August and September after ending July with a .296 average.
The 1970's started with a streak of solid batting seasons as from 1970 through 1974, the lowest batting average was .258. 1971 also brought Don's best game as a pro; on June 17th, he went for 6 for 6 in an extra-inning Cubs win -- the last Cub to have six hits in a game. Never known for a high OBP, .351 in 1972 was a career high. His durability was his trademark. In the 10 years from 1966 to 1975, Kessinger averaged 154 games a year with a low of 145 games. In an interesting bit of trivia from this period, Don still holds one major league record. In 1973, he was intentionally walked 18 times yet he didn't hit a home run. This mark is the highest number of intentional walks in a season by a player who didn't hit a home run.
After the 1975 season, the Cubs traded Don to the St. Louis Cardinals for Mike Garman and a PTBNL (a minor leaguer who never made it, Bobby Hrapmann). The move was apparently made to make room for the Cubs to play Dave Rosello at shortstop. Kessinger didn't hit much for St. Louis: only .239 in 1976, but Rosello didn't hit much either (.242), and so the Cubs went out and acquired Ivan DeJesus to fill the spot in 1977. In August 1977, having been replaced by Garry Templeton, the Cardinals sent Kessinger back to Chicago, this time to the South Side. After a good 1978 (.255 batting average), he was named player-manager for 1979. Major league managing didn't seem to fit Don's personality and on August 1979, he resigned as manager with a 46-60 record and retired as an active player as well. Don retired having played 2,078 games with a lifetime batting average of .252. He was succeeded by someone even younger -- a manager still around today, Tony LaRussa. p> After his retirement, Don returned to Mississippi and served as baseball coach and in the athletic department of the University of Mississippi until 2000. He has also been very active in various Christian organizations including Athletes in Action and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Don also has two sons, Kevin, who was signed by the Cubs but never made the majors and Keith, who got 27 AB for the Reds in 1993.
While he was never an offensive force, Kessinger's numbers need to be looked at in the context of his era when weak hitting shortstops were common. It is questionable whether he ever should have been a leadoff hitter, which he was for several seasons. His .314 lifetime OBP and 100/85 SB/CS ratio are not what we look for in a leadoff hitter today. Also, it is believed (no specific records are kept for this) that he holds the record for most career pinch-hit AB without a hit -- 31. Still, his defense and consistency will be what he is remembered for and as someone who as a young boy followed the 1969 Cubs; I will always remember him as an important member of that heart-breaking team. [Note from Al: I second this remembrance]