Hart, Jim Ray

Primary Position: Third base
Birthplace: Hookerton
First, Middle Names:  James Ray

Date of Birth:  Oct. 30, 1941   Date and Place of Death: May 19, 2016, Acampo, CA
Burial: Cremated

High School: Snow Hill Colored High School, Snow Hill, NC
College: Did not attend

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 185
Debut Year: 1963        Final Year: 1974          Years Played: 12
Team and Years: San Francisco Giants, 1963-73; New York Yankees, 1973-74

Awards/Honors: All Star, 1966; Boys of Summer Top 100

Career Summary
G            AB         H           R            RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1125    3783    1052    518      578      170     .278     .345     .467     +24.9

Jim Ray Hart was celebrating his successful major-league debut in the Giants’ clubhouse at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on that Sunday afternoon in July 1963. The 21-year-old sharecropper’s son from the cotton fields of North Carolina was a rising star. He had hit with power and consistency during his brief tenure in the minors, winning two batting titles and impressing old pros who compared him to the likes of Henry Aaron and Ted Williams. His performance that day in the first game of a double header suggested there might be something to such talk, that this kid with a booming bat might make it in the majors. Hart had two hits, knocked in a run, and scored one in a 15-inning thriller against the St. Louis Cardinals that his team won 4-3. The affable farm boy was all smiles afterwards, clutching the game ball his manager had given him and high-fiving teammates. One noted somberly, though, that he’d face Bob Gibson in the nightcap.

“Who’s Bob Gibson?” the rookie asked.[I]

In his first at bat against the fire-balling, future Hall of Famer, Hart heard a fastball sizzle by for a strike. He stepped out of the batter’s box, snuck a glance at the glowering Gibson, took a deep breath, and stepped back in. He did what all batters instinctively do when confronted with a hard-throwing pitcher: He began stabbing a hole in the dirt with the toes of his back foot to better attack the next fastball.

A cry went up in unison from his dugout: NO.

Every batter in the National League knew better then to dig in against Gibson, an unusually angry man when he stood atop a pitching mound. He considered the outer edges of home plate his exclusive territories and he guarded them fiercely. Batters who staked a claim by digging in or leaning out over the plate to better reach an outside pitch usually paid the price. Even the league’s luminaries, like Hart’s teammate Willie Mays, conceded the ground. Mays once unconsciously began toeing out a hole, remembered who was on the mound, and called time. He kicked dirt back into the indentation and smoothed it over with his foot before stepping back into the box. He was spared.

The fierce Bob Gibson was a threatening presence on a pitching mound.

A rookie from the bushes, however, is no Willie Mays. Gibson’s next pitch was another fastball, a menacing blur that was closing the 60-foot gap at 100 miles an hour. It seemed destined for Hart’s head, and the kid seemed slow to react. At the last moment, Hart, a right-handed hitter, raised his left shoulder in a reflexive act of defense and desperation. He heard something crack at impact.

It was a different game back then. While Hart was hauled to the hospital, the then-usual bean-ball war broke out at Candlestick. Juan Marichal, the Giants’ pitcher, threw at Gibson when he batted. That only made the angry man angrier, of course. He retaliated by sending Mays to the deck. Fines were issued, as were the standard denials about pitches thrown with malevolent intent. Though new to the majors, Hart had his lines down. “Gibson was just trying to pitch me tight, and the ball got away from him,” he said the next day from his hospital bed. “I don’t think he was aiming at me.”[II]

That bit of baseball theater overshadowed the facts that Hart’s collarbone was broken and that he would miss six weeks of his first season. More pain, unfortunately, awaited. On his fourth day back in mid-August in another game against the Cardinals, but this one in St. Louis, Hart was beaned by Curt Simmons. His plastic helmet prevented serious injury, but the resulting concussion drew a curtain on his debut season.

He bounced back to become a threatening presence in the middle of a potent Giants’ lineup. Hart hit 139 home runs during a five-year span, while driving in close to 100 runs a season and batting near .300. He was an All-Star in 1966, when he hit a career-high 33 homers.

Then, he was done. Almost as quickly as he had risen, Hart disappeared as a feared slugger. He remained in the majors for six more years but never again played a full season. He hit only 31 homers during the last half of his career as Injuries limited his playing time. An expanding waistline hinted at his lack of discipline, as did a life of hard drinking that began to exact its toll. Before he tamed his addiction, alcohol would reduce Hart to a desperate man in search of change on grocery store floors. The Giants finally sold him to the New York Yankees in the American League, where he ended his career with a productive season as one of baseball’s first designated hitters.

Jim Ray Hart’s plaque on the  San Francisco Giants’ Wall of Fame.

Those first few years, though, were enough to place Hart among North Carolina’s top hitters. His .467 lifetime slugging percentage is fourth on the list of natives with at least 1,000 major-league at bats and his 170 home runs are eighth. He’s among the career leaders in eight other offensive categories. His +24.9 wins above replacement ranks him 27th on the Tarheel Boys of Summer Top 100.

Born in 1941 near Hookerton in Greene County, James Ray Hart was one of Amos and Essie Lee’s six children. He spent his childhood working on the family’s cotton farm. Lifting those bales molded an impressive physique by the time he attended nearby Snow Hill Colored High School.[1] Hart played second base there and for semipro teams on Sundays.

The Giants signed him in 1960 for $500, or the equivalent of about $5,000 in 2022. He packed his clothes in two paper bags and reported to rookie camp in Salem, Virginia. “It was the first time I was away from home,” he remembered. “I was very nervous, got homesick.”[III]

Jim Crow laws prevented Hart from staying in hotels with the rest of the team. He and other Black players lived with local African American families or in boarding houses run by Blacks.

After hitting over .400 that summer, the 19-year-old was promoted to Fresno in the Class C California League in 1961. There he was an All-Star, leading the league with a .355 batting average while hitting 23 home runs and collecting 123 runs batted in.

Earl Weaver, then managing the Baltimore Orioles’ Class A club in Elmira, New York, in the Eastern League, saw Hart play the following season for the Giants’ affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts. “[Hart] can do everything in the field and hit for power and percentage,” the future Orioles’ Hall of Fame manager observed. “Every once in a while, a boy comes along who has all the tools. Hart is that boy.”[IV]

He lived up to the billing by hitting .337 that season to win another batting title. He was named the league’s Player of the Year and was selected as the third baseman on the Class A Minor League All-Star Team.

The Giants brought their prized prospect to training camp in Arizona in 1963. Lefty O’Doul, a batting instructor and former hitting star in the majors with a lifetime .349 average, declared Hart’s swing perfect. “He’s a natural,” O’Doul said. “I told him what I told Ted Williams years ago – don’t let anyone ever change your swing or style. You can’t improve on perfection.”[V] Even rivals gushed. Pete Reiser, a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, compared that swing to Aaron’s. “Hart is the best hitter for his age I’ve seen in all my years in baseball,” he said.[VI]

The Giants sent Hart to Tacoma, their Class AAA club, when camp broke, but no one expected him to be in Washington long. There, Hart struck out four times one midsummer night. His manager, Andy Gilbert, approached the disconsolate player after the game. “Pack your bags,” he said, placing a hand on his player’s shoulders. Hart, who was leading the Pacific Coast League in hitting at the time, was shocked that he was being demoted after one bad night. “You’re going to San Francisco,” Gilbert said. [VII]

After his painful and brief first tour in the majors, Hart again reported to training camp in 1964. During exhibition games, he again seemed to get in the way of thrown balls. “Jimmy Ray was digging in so hard at the plate that he was locking himself in.” explained Hank Sauer, the Giants batting coach. “When a pitch came at him, he had trouble getting out of the way. And he tended to lean toward the ball instead of away from it.”[VIII]

Manager Alvin Dark threw at Jim Ray Hart’s head as a drill to evade errant pitches.

Manager Alvin Dark came up with a solution. Every day he stood on the mound and threw balls at Hart’s head. “Boy, things weren’t like this down in the minors,” said Hart after a session of ducking. “This sure is a funny game up here.”[IX]

Satisfied that Hart could dodge pitches and remain in the lineup, Dark moved Jim Davenport, long considered the best defensive third baseman in the league, to second to make room for Hart, who then made his manager look like a genius. He hit .286 with 31 home runs, a team rookie record, and finished second to the Philadelphia Phillies’ Dick Allen as the top rookie in the National League.

He played the best baseball of his life over the next four seasons. Wielding a massive 36-inch, 35-ounce bat, Hart became known for ferocious drives, even in lineups that featured sluggers like Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Bobby Bonds. “You could have your back turned and not see the hitter, and when that ball came off Jimmy Ray’s bat, it made a different sound,” said Jack Hiatt, a former catcher and a fixture on the Giants’ scouting staff at the time. “He hit the ball extremely hard. He hit a home run off of (Sandy) Koufax in Los Angeles that almost knocked the foul pole down.”[X]

Defense was the one flaw in his game. He led the league in errors at third in 1965 and had the lowest fielding percentage of all regulars at that position the following season. Baseball historian and analyst Bill James ranked Hart as the 74th best third baseman of all time in 2001. “He is a better hitter than 59 of the 73 men listed ahead of him,” James noted at the time. “This should tell you all you need to know about his defense.” Hart played about a third of his games in left field in 1968, the start of his gradual shift to the outfield. “Third base is just too darn close to the hitters,” he explained then. “It’s easier to relax (in left field) than it is at third base. You don’t have as many things to worry about in the outfield as you do in the infield.”[XI]

His weight was also becoming an issue. He ballooned to at least 30 pounds over his normal playing weight in 1968. “I wasn’t in shape by opening day, and I wasn’t closing day either,” Hart admitted after the season. “My muscles were crying after some of those nine-inning games, and I don’t like the way I got tired. I’ll be packing no more than my proper weight next season.”[XII] Team owner Horace Stoneham made it clear that’s what he expected. He gave Hart a $5,000 raise, to $30,000 ($260,000), but told him he’d be fined if he wasn’t in shape for spring training. Hart hired an exercise therapist in the offseason and reported to training camp in 1969 close to his normal playing weight but keeping it there would be a constant struggle.

Alcohol, though, was the bigger demon. For extra money, Hart’s father brewed corn whiskey that his son started drinking as a teenager. The problem was already evident during spring training in 1965 when Dark suspended Hart indefinitely for what the manager called curfew violations. Though he lifted the suspension after a game, Dark wanted to scare the kid. Mays and fellow North Carolinian Gaylord Perry also counseled him. “I did want him to do well, coming from my home state,” said Perry, a Giants’ pitcher and another sharecropper’s son. “He didn’t have anything growing up, like me. I had the same feeling inside that he had: This is my chance. Don’t give it up.”[XIII] 

It didn’t work. Throughout his time with the Giants, Hart drank a couple of beers in the clubhouse after games and then head to a bar for double shots of his favorite bourbon, I.W. Harper. He’d drink some more at home. “If I hadn’t been drinking, I’d have played another four or five years, no problem,” he said in 1991. “It got to the point I didn’t care about the game no more. Whether we won or lost, I didn’t care. I just wanted to go out and have a drink or two. I mean, this was every day.”[XIV]

In October 1968, he killed a pedestrian, Dorothy Selmi, while driving in San Francisco. The police and the district attorney investigated, and the Selmi family claimed in a civil lawsuit that Hart drove recklessly, but there’s no evidence that Hart was criminally charged and no public report on the outcome of the lawsuit. Neither was it ever revealed whether alcohol played a role in the accident.

Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham gave Jim Ray Hart an ultimatum: Shape up or ship out.

Plagued by injuries and alcoholism, Hart had his worst season in 1969. He dived back to first base during the opening week, jamming his right shoulder that caused him to miss half of the first 52 games. The injury would nag him for the rest of his career. He was getting hit by pitches again and fell down while trying to field a fly ball. The Giants wanted to trade him to the Phillies in May, but the injury got in the way. He managed to play in only 95 games, 24 as a pinch hitter, and only three games at third. He hit three home runs. After that dismal performance, the Giants cut Hart’s salary by a quarter, the largest reduction allowed by the rules at the time.

Hart was determined to bounce back. He saw a doctor for his ailing shoulder and reported to camp 10 pounds lighter. Stoneham wasn’t impressed. As the Giants opened spring training, the owner issued an ultimatum to Hart: Either play well and regularly during the spring or be sent to the minors or traded. “He isn’t taking care of himself,” Stoneham told the press, likely referring to Hart’s drinking. “I saw him head for his room here this morning at about 2:30. I’ve already told Jimmy how I feel and what I expect of him and anything even remotely short of that could cost him.”[XVI]

Hart started the season in the minors, but cortisone shots to his shoulder allowed him to come back and have a marginally better year with eight homers in 76 games. On one glorious night in Atlanta, Georgia, Hart hit for the cycle against the Braves and drove in six runs in one inning, tying a league record.

After Hart appeared in only 24 games in 1972, the Giants sold him to the Yankees at the start of the next season. It was the first year of the designated hitter. Used exclusively in that role, Hart had his last productive season: 13 home runs and 54 driven in.

He retired a year later and remained in San Francisco, where he had lived for more than a decade. Hart continued to struggle with alcohol. His home was repossessed and he was seen scavenging grocery store floors for lost change. After blacking out in the middle of an airline flight in 1988, Hart entered a rehabilitation center that he credited with saving his life. He retired as a warehouse worker for a supermarket chain in Sacramento, California

Married and divorced twice, Hart had four children and 12 grandchildren when he died of an undisclosed illness in 2016.

[1] Built in 1925, the school was one of more than 5,000 schools, shops, and teacher’s homes built in the South during the early 20th century primarily for the education of African American children. The project was the product of the partnership of Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish-American clothier who became part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Booker T. Washington, the Black leader, educator, and philanthropist who was president of the Tuskegee Institute. Additions were built to the school in 1935 and in the 1950s. It closed when schools in Greene County were fully integrated in the 1970s. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

[I] Bergman, Irwin. “Jim Ray Hart.” Oral Interview, Society for American Baseball Research, 1975. https://sabr.org/interview/jim-ray-hart-unknown/.
[II] United Press International. “Hart on Shelf for Six Weeks.” Eureka Humboldt Standard (Eureka, CA), July 9, 1963.
[III] Bergman.
[IV] Trostler, Bob. “Jim Ray Hart.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/jim-ray-hart/.
[V] Hanley, Jack. “Hart Everything They Say He Is.” Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), March 27, 1963.
[VI] Associated Press. “Giants Have Great Talent On the Way.” Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael, CA), Jan. 22, 1963.
[VII] Bergman.
[VIII] Trostler.
[IX] Ibid.
[X] Haft, Chris. “Giants Saddened by Death of Former All-Star Hart.” Major League Baseball, May 20, 2016. https://www.mlb.com/news/former-giants-3b-jim-ray-hart-dies-at-74-c179247248.
[XI]  Trostler.

[XII] Ibid.
[XIII] Haft, Chris. “Perry Remembers How It Used to Be.” Modesto (CA) Bee, July 24,2005.
[XIV] Trostler.
[XV] Kane, Tom Sr. “Forget the Turf: Keep Pitches Low.” Fresno (CA) Bee, Feb 25, 1970.