In 13 seasons as a utility player with the Yankees, Orioles, Expos, Cardinals, Angels and Phillies, Rex Hudler thoroughly embraced the power of the uniform. He loved to walk the area adjacent to the box seats, where he discovered that his stature as a big leaguer helped him break down barriers and elevate spirits.
In all those years, one overlooked segment of the population touched Hudler's heart and appealed to his sensibilities more than any other. As a born scrapper and champion of the underdog, Hudler instinctively gravitated to fellow redheads. He took particular satisfaction in bolstering the spirits of America's redhaired youths as part of a one-man anti-discrimination crusade.
"I got made fun of all the time when I was growing up," Hudler said. "Freckle-face. Carrot top. I was Howdy Doody. I was Ron Howard. Everything you could hear, I was. And having the name Rex on top of that, it just opened up the floodgates.
"I see young kids all the time with red hair and freckles. And I tell them. 'The world needs more of you. Work hard, play catch, and we need you in baseball.' I tell them, 'Those freckles are angel kisses, man.' I'm always pumping them up, because I used to get made fun of all the time."
Although Hudler's outreach efforts are admirable, two members of the fraternity are chasing their major league dreams on the basis of talent alone. If the attention they're generating in advance of the 2013 draft is any indication, they're providing definitive evidence that redheads can, indeed, rake.
Clint Frazier is a 6-foot, 190-pound, righthanded hitting center fielder from Loganville, Ga. He has quick hands, a strong throwing arm, impressive raw power and a bright shock of red hair that blended nicely with the burnt orange jersey he wore at the 2012 Perfect Game national showcase.
Then there's Colin Moran, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound lefthanded hitting third baseman from the North Carolina Tar Heels by way of Rye, N.Y. He has an advanced eye, a sweet swing, a big league pedigree as the nephew of B.J. Surhoff . . . and red hair.
While the attention afforded Frazier and Moran is a source of joy in Ginger Nation, it's a bit confounding to scouts who see relatively few ballplayers with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein. (Tip of the hat there, Wikipedia.)
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow has also given the matter some thought. In his previous role as Cardinals scouting director, he oversaw an influx of talent in the St. Louis system. Now Luhnow is running the show in Houston and he has the top pick for the second straight June and can't afford to miss. If there's a smidge of an iota of a scintilla of a chance that a player's hair color might play a factor in his chance of success, Luhnow isn't about to casually toss it aside.
"Anytime you're going to make a significant personnel decision on behalf of the organization and you're delving into waters that are not that populated, you have to wonder why," Luhnow said. "The answer could be as simple as the percentage of redheaded people in the population. There just aren't that many out there.
"If that's the answer, OK. So be it. But there could be something more to it, and if there is, it's certainly worth exploring. Is it because the parts of world where redheaded people typically come from don't play baseball as much and it's not part of the culture? I don't know the answer to that. Is it because they're fair-skinned and not as durable under the sun? I've heard all kinds of crazy theories. I haven't done anything to verify any of them, to be honest with you. But it certainly is an interesting topic."
Even as Esquire Magazine pays homage to Christina Hendricks and Town & Country Magazine hails Prince Harry in those "Sexiest Person Alive" issues, redheads continue to take their lumps in popular culture. In a 2005 episode of South Park, the Eric Cartman character proclaimed that Gingers "do not have souls." A Ginger kid, according to Eric, is born with an incurable disease called "gingervitis" which results in red hair, very light skin and freckles. Like vampires, Ginger kids must avoid the sun at all costs.
The term "Ginger" spawned an alternate category—the "Day Walker"—which consists of gingers without the pale skin and freckles. According to the Urban Dictionary, Lucille Ball and South Park's Kyle Brofloski are Day Walkers.
The issue of redheadedness and athletic performance took center stage before the 2011 NFL draft, when Sports Illustrated's Peter King interviewed an anonymous head coach who questioned Texas Christian University product Andy Dalton's ability to lead a team from the quarterback spot. The scout's objections were based less on Dalton's arm strength, pocket presence and his Wonderlic score than his hair color.
"Has there ever been a redheaded quarterback in the NFL who's really done well?" the coach said. "It sounds idiotic, but is there any way that could be a factor? We've wondered."
The coach may not have heard of Sonny Jurgensen, who made the Hall of Fame in 1983, or Archie Manning, Carson Palmer or Jeff Garcia, who carved out successful NFL careers in spite of their inherent gingerness. Perhaps it's just the obsessive nature of the process. If teams can put players through the wringer with three-cone drills, shuttle runs, broad jumps and vertical leaps, it stands to reason they're going to take note of wing spans, fluid hips and other God-given physical characteristics.
Scouts Look At Everything
The redheaded thing hits close to home for me, since I'm a lifelong member of the club. I'm a redhead, my two older sisters are redheads, and I washed out in baseball in my mid-teens because of a weak arm and suspect bat speed. Those factors, more than my status as a freckle-faced, fair-skinned, carrot top, helped earn me a seat in the press box rather than the batter's box.
Yet I wondered: Are redheads lacking some pivotal attribute or intangible that prevents them from achieving success in the big leagues? I struck out to find an answer to that question, without a whole lot of success.
Scouts were intrigued by my query, but generally at a loss for answers. It's one of those topics that might come up during a long day at a showcase while they're taking notes, slathering on sunscreen and ruminating on "the Good Face." Then their attention turns back to the game and finding players.
"We've always had the talk about Rusty Staub and Rusty Greer. They all seemed to be named 'Rusty,' " Marlins assistant GM Dan Jennings said. "Honestly, I've never even thought of it. Scouts have had conversations about the color of players' eyes and their ability to block out glare, and whether guys need sunglasses and that stuff. But the red hair—that's interesting. I've heard it come up, but I don't know that I've ever heard a reason where somebody says, 'Here's why.' "
The most plausible explanation appears to lie in some daunting demographics. About 1-2 percent of the world's population has red hair, according to multiple sources. In a 2002 Washington Post story, Joel Garreau wrote, "Between 2 and 6 percent of the U.S. population is redheaded, depending on the estimate and definitions. They are scarcer than lefthanders or gays, almost as scarce as Episcopalians." The percentage of redheads is reportedly higher in Scotland, Ireland and other Western European countries, but athletes in those locales are more likely to be on a rugby pitch than a baseball diamond.
So a lot of it comes down to the raw numbers: If you don't see many redheads at the supermarket or the mall, why would you find them in abundance on the ballfield?
"Just go out of your house and look at the next 20 people, and don't count women because they tint their hair a lot," said Tim Wilken, a special assistant to Cubs president Theo Epstein. "Count your next 20 guys and see how many redheads you get. That would be my first, initial thought: How many redheads are there?"
Like Eric Cartman, others through history have described nefarious motives and traits to redheads in literature and legend. The ancient Greeks believed that redheads turned into Vampires after they died, and women with red hair came under particular scrutiny during the witch hunts in 16th and 17th Century Europe. Mark Twain jokingly observed (we think) that "while the rest of the human race are descended from apes, redheads are descended from cats."
In Zane Grey's short story "The Redheaded Outfield," the protagonists consisted of right fielder Reddy Clammer, center fielder Reddie Ray and left fielder Red Gilbat, who was described as "a jack-o'-lantern, a will-o'-the-wisp, a weird, long-legged, long-armed, redhaired illusive phantom."Red also had a mischievous streak, as evidenced by his penchant for wandering off before the first pitch to stare through knotholes in the fence with the little kids who congregated at the field. Redheads are also renowned for their quick tempers. Charlie Manuel, now a World Series-winning skipper in Philadelphia, was known as "Aka-Oni," or "Red Devil," during his playing days with the Yakult Swallows in Japan. Manuel clashed with management for refusing to take part in drills and shine his spikes. Robert Whiting, an authority on Japanese baseball, described Manuel as "a big, redhaired character from West Virginia . . . with a talent for producing anarchy out of order."
Beating The Odds
Yet many have bucked the odds. Red Schoendienst, a 10-time all-star in St. Louis, went on to become a winning manager and a revered figure in team history. Although Bob Gibson and Lou Brock devotees might beg to differ, some proclaimed Schoendienst the "Greatest Living Cardinal" when Stan Musial died in February.
I can remember Rusty Staub in the 1970s, Dave Stapleton, Roy Howell and Jerry Don Gleaton in the 1980s and Dan Gladden and Rusty Greer in the '90s. Staub, of course, went by the mellifluous nickname "Le Grand Orange" in Montreal, where he made three straight all-star teams from 1969-71.
Big league pitchers Zach Miner and Nate Adcock are fellow redheads who are frequently mistaken for one another. I should know, since I came across Adcock at Royals spring training couple of years ago and mistakenly referred to him as "Zach." Adcock, a good sport, told me the mixup happens routinely.
Over the past few years, I've wandered through big league clubhouses and encountered the likes of Bobby Kielty, Seth McClung and Matt Murton, who hit 29 homers in 952 at-bats with the Cubs, A's and Rockies before going on to bigger and better things in Japan. Chris Shelton, who hit 37 homers over parts of five seasons with the Tigers, Rangers and Mariners, ranked among baseball's all-time leaders in nicknames. He was alternatively referred to as "Big Red," "Red Bull," "Orange Crush" and even "Red Pop," a take on a soda produced by the Faygo Beverage Company in Detroit.
Mets infielder Justin Turner, who grew up with the nickname "Red," was selected out of Cal State Fullerton by the Reds in the seventh round of the 2006 draft. Now there's some poetic justice. And of course, we can't forget Mark McGwire, whose 583 career home runs failed to earn him entrée to Cooperstown because of his PED-related indiscretions. When I brought the dearth of gingers in baseball to his attention, Big Mac had a good chuckle over it.
"That is really weird," he said. "That's a very unique question. I guess it's because there aren't that many redheads on earth, and they're usually over in Ireland. They don't play baseball over in Ireland."
Other sports have their redhaired patron saints—from Red Grange in football to Bill Walton in hoops, Chuck Norris in karate and Shaun White in snowboarding. Boris Becker and Rod Laver made their marks in tennis, and brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin are doing the whole "gingers in stereo" thing with the NHL's Vancouver Canucks.
If you're the kind who regards politics as a form of sport, redheads have had a much more prominent, enduring impact. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents lists Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Rutherford B. Hayes, Calvin Coolidge, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter as redheads. Even if you discount Carter as "sandy-haired," several other sources list Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower as redheads. We're talking about a White House representation in the neighborhood of 15-20 percent.
So why not in baseball? As Clint Frazier and Colin Moran try to make their mark, no one will pose the question more persistently or doggedly than the Wonder Dog, Rex Hudler. He's put a lot of time and effort into encouraging the ginger youth of America. But some things are beyond a man's control.
"There's a need for more redheaded big league ballplayers," Hudler said. "Or how about just people? We just need more redheads. I was a little bit hurt when my wife's genes dominated my four kids. I've got one blond, three with brown hair and no redheads. It took me a few years to get over that. But it's like my wife told me—'Hud, God made them. You didn't have anything to do with that.'"