Top 100 Indians: #39 Jeff Heath

Jeff Heath

LGT's countdown of the greatest players in franchise history continues with Jeff Heath, the left fielder from the late 30’s/early 40's teams.

John Geoffrey Heath "Jeff"

Left Fielder, Right Fielder, 1936-1945

Height: 5'11" Weight: 200 lbs

Throws: Right Bats: Left

How Acquired: Amateur Free Agent, 1935

Left Via: Trade, December 14, 1945: Traded to the Washington Senators for George Case

Although technically a Canadian as he was born in Fort William, Ontario, Jeff Heath moved to Seattle when he was but yet a year old. The son of a hardware store man, Heath would go on to attend Garfield High School in Seattle. He made the varsity baseball team as a freshman and also starred for the football team. He was so proficient as a high school running back, he had multiple scholarship offers from quite a few colleges, including Alabama, Oregon, and Washington. But as he had injured both ankles and a knee in high school, he decided against football and attended the University of Washington studying business administration.

And instead of playing for the Huskies baseball team, he joined Yakima of the semipro Northwest League and hit .390 in 75 games as a 20 year old in 1935. His performance earned him a spot on Les Mann's All-American amateur team which toured Japan that year. He hit almost .500 on the tour, but ended up stuck in customs in San Francisco because he had a British passport. Lefty O'Doul, a sponsor for the trip, finally ironed things out a few days later and Heath became a naturalized US citizen at that point.

Former Indian third baseman was a scout for the Indians at that time and pursued Heath pretty heavily, signing him to a contract after fixing his passport issues. He played some at spring training in New Orleans, but developed a hand infection. So instead of playing with the Pelicans, he started his professional career with the Zanesville Greys, the Indians C club in the Middle Atlantic League. He batted .383 and slugged .676 with 47 doubles, 14 triples and 28 homers and a staggering 187 RBI in just 124 games. That earned him a call up in September where he slashed 341/386/634 in just 44 plate appearances.

He opened 1937 with the Indians as a backup and did get 13 starts in May, mostly in right, but didn't hit well. Besides, the Indians had a pretty good outfield that year, Moose Solters, Earl Averill and Bruce Campbell. So he spent the rest of the year playing for the Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association. He hit .367 and slugged .577 in 100 games for them with his home run total taking a slight dip to 14.

In 1938, he finally grabbed a starting spot as a 23 year old, and what a superb first full season it was. In 126 games, he slashed 343/383/602, 145 OPS+ with 112 RBI, and led the league in triples with 18, finishing eleventh in MVP voting. This was the start of a potential Hall of fame career, right? Sadly, it was not to be. In 1939, after he arrived in New Orleans, he held out. Ossie Vitt, the manager at the time, offered to let him work out while they negotiated, but Heath refused and instead watched the games from the stands, annoying his teammates. After he finally accepted a deal, he remained unhappy for the rest of the season and his numbers reflected it: 292/354/494, 117 OPS+ only 69 RBI. He still finished twenty-second in MVP voting however.

Heath also channeled his Albert Belle temper that season. After striking out, he threw his bat and it landed in a front row box seat. The umpire promptly ejected him, which made him even more irate. One of the few teammates who was close with him, Johnny Broaca, tried to calm him down. But Heath threatened to fight him, which Broaca, as a former boxer, accepted the challenge. The fight lasted all the way from the dugout back to the clubhouse. After fouling out on a 3-0 pitch the next day, a fan jeered at him to throw his bat again. Heath punched the fan in the chest. Luckily neither Vitt nor the umpire saw it.

1940 wasn't much better for Heath. He slumped to a 219/298/399 80 OPS+ line and only played in 100 games because Vitt was tired of his antics and poor hitting. When the players tried to revolt against Vitt that summer, they asked Heath to present their grips to management. However, when management confronted the team, nobody backed up Heath and he was cast as the ringleader.

Maybe Vitt truly was the problem, because Heath rebounded very nicely in 1941 with new manager Roger Peckinpaugh on board. HE hit 340/396/586 162 OPS+ hit 32 doubles, led the league with 20 triples, hit 24 homers, drove in 123, started the All-Star game in right and finished eighth in MVP voting. He was the first one of three players to achieve the 20/20/20 club, with George brett in 1979 and Curtis Granderson in 2007 equaling it.

Heath was good in 1942, but not excellent. He hit 278/350/442 128 OPS+ for rookie manager Lou Boudreau. But Heath and Boudreau were not always on the same page either. In one game, Heath made no attempt to catch a fly ball and was sent to the clubhouse after the inning. But as his spot was up in the next inning, Boudreau did allow him to bat. He promptly won the game with a base hit.

In those war years, Heath really disliked the dimensions in Municipal Stadium. It was extremely hard to hit homers there. Heath also continued to hold out each spring as well. In fact, during the war years, the Indians held their spring training at Purdue University instead of in New Orleans. Heath never made the trip to Lafayette in any of those years.

In 1943, heath had very good numbers again, but only played in 118 games. He hit 274/369/481 155 OPS+ and made the All-Star team. But this was also in a depressed league of few stars so the numbers are a tad inflated. He also hit very well in 1944, 331/402/490 158 OPS+, but was only limited to 60 games because of cartilage damage in one of his knees.

Heath's penchant for holding out reached an all-time high in 1945 when he held out until June 10. He finished that season with a 305/398/508 168 OPS+ line and twentieth in MVP voting. But missing those first 40 games was inexcusable. The Indians finally tried of his petulance and dealt him to the Washington Senators that offseason for George Case.

Griffith Park was almost as cavernous as Municipal and after only four homers in 203 plate appearances; the Senators flipped him to the St. Louis Browns for Joe Grace and Al LaMacchia. He had a bit more power in St. Louis, but his average did come down a bit that year. He matched his numbers for the Browns in 1947, 251/366/485 133 OPS+, but his off-field quirks were getting the best of him. He was punched by teammate Johnny Berardino, he smashed one of his bats after someone else hit a home run with it without his permission, and on the final day of the season, he was not available in his last at bat because he was already in the showers.

So when the Boston Braves approached the Browns that offseason about purchasing him, they gladly let him go. Moving to the National League was like the fountain of youth for Heath. He hit 319/404/582 165 OPS+ in 420 plate appearances, helping the Braves to their second World Series. Heath was keeping an eye on the AL Standings though; he really wanted to get even with Cleveland as he felt he was wrongly targeted in the Vitt Crybaby scandal. He was repeatedly quoted a saying "If we play the Indians, I will kill them." He, along with a few other regulars, had approached manager Billy Southworth about resting up for the World Series as they had already clinched. But Southworth preferred to keep his players fresh. Four games from the end of the season, Heath broke his ankle sliding into Dodger catcher Roy Campanella when he hesitated on his slide. Alas, Heath never got his revenge on the Indians, nor did he ever play in a post season game. And to cap it off, the Indians beat the Braves in that Series.

Heath made a comeback in 1949 and hit well, 306/389/613 170 OPS+, but only in 126 plate appearances. He didn't appear prior to July 16 because of the injury. His mobility was shot and he was a bench player at best. After being released that offseason, Heath played one final year in the minors for the Seattle Rainiers in the Pacific Coast League. But a 245/346/355 year encouraged him to retire.

After retiring, he became the color commentator for the hometown Rainiers. He hadn't lost his temper though. He mistakenly swore on air in 1956 and ended up throwing the station manager down a flight of stairs during the ensuing argument. He got into a brawl in 1957 in a café in Seattle as well. He also had a heart attack later in 1957 at the age of 43. He stayed as an announcer for Seattle through the 60s. He also dabbled in real estate. So when the Mariner franchise was proposing the domed Kingdome, Heath actually stood on the street corner in a sandwich board collecting signatures against the Kingdome as he believed a domed stadium wasn't necessary and the budget was not enough. He passed away in 1975 at the age of 60 due to another heart attack. He and his wife Theabelle had two daughters and a son.

As enigmatic as Heath was, his ten year career for the Tribe produced a fairly staggering line of 298/366/506 137 OPS+.

Sources

SABR Biography Project-C. Paul Rogers III [Note: originally appeared in the book Spahn, Sain, and Teddy Ballgame: Boston's (almost) Perfect Baseball Summer of 1948, edited by Bill Nowlin and published by Rounder Books in 2008.

Indians Career Stats

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB GDP HBP SH Pos Awards
1936 21 CLE 12 44 41 6 14 3 3 1 8 1 0 3 4 .341 .386 .634 1.021 145 26 0 0 O7/8
1937 22 CLE 20 61 61 8 14 1 4 0 8 0 1 0 9 .230 .230 .377 .607 51 23 0 0 O9/7
1938 23 CLE 126 538 502 104 172 31 18 21 112 3 1 33 55 .343 .383 .602 .985 145 302 0 3 *O7/9 MVP-11
1939 24 CLE 121 472 431 64 126 31 7 14 69 8 4 41 64 .292 .354 .494 .848 117 213 7 0 0 *7O MVP-22
1940 25 CLE 100 396 356 55 78 16 3 14 50 5 3 40 62 .219 .298 .399 .697 80 142 2 0 0 7O
1941 26 CLE 151 643 585 89 199 32 20 24 123 18 12 50 69 .340 .396 .586 .982 162 343 5 4 4 *O97 AS,MVP-8
1942 27 CLE 147 634 568 82 158 37 13 10 76 9 9 62 66 .278 .350 .442 .792 128 251 10 1 3 *O7/9
1943 28 CLE 118 488 424 58 116 22 6 18 79 5 8 63 58 .274 .369 .481 .850 155 204 4 1 0 *O7/89 AS
1944 29 CLE 60 170 151 20 50 5 2 5 33 0 1 18 12 .331 .402 .490 .892 158 74 2 0 1 O7/89
1945 30 CLE 102 429 370 60 113 16 7 15 61 3 1 56 39 .305 .398 .508 .906 168 188 6 1 2 7O MVP-20
CLE (10 yrs) 957 3875 3489 546 1040 194 83 122 619 52 40 366 438 .298 .366 .506 .872 137 1766 36 7 13
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/14/2013.

Selected Awards/Leaders

  • AL All-Star: 1941, 1943
  • AL MVP: 1938-11th; 1939-22nd; 1941-8th; 1945-20th
  • AL WAR: 8th, 1941-5.2
  • AL WAR Position Players: 5th, 1941-5.2; 9th, 1943-4.1; 9th, 1945-4.0
  • AL oWAR: 4th, 1941-6.0; 5th, 1945-4.2; 10th, 1943-3.8
  • AL Average: 2nd, 1938-.343; 4th, 1941-.340
  • AL On Base Percentage: 7th, 1943-.369
  • AL Slugging: 3rd, 1938-.602; 3rd, 1941-.586; 4th, 1943-.481; 9th, 1942-.442
  • AL OPS: 3rd, 1943-.850; 4th, 1938-.985; 4th, 1941-.982
  • AL Hits: 2nd, 1941-199
  • AL TB: 2nd, 1941-343; 5th, 1938-302; 9th, 1942-251
  • AL 2B: 3rd, 1942-37
  • AL 3B: 1st, 1938-18; 1st, 1941-20; 2nd, 1942-13; 8th, 1945-7
  • AL HR: 4th, 1943-18; 5th, 1945-15; 7th, 1941-24
  • AL RBI: 2nd, 1941-123
  • AL Strikeouts: 5th, 1939-64; 5th, 1942-66; 7th, 1941-69
  • AL Stolen Bases: 3rd, 1941-18
  • AL Singles: 7th, 1941-123
  • AL OPS+: 2nd, 1945-155; 3rd, 1938-145; 3rd, 1941-162
  • AL RC: 3rd, 1941-132; 10th, 1938-116
  • AL Extra Bases: 2nd, 1941-76; 3rd, 1942-60; 5th, 1938-70; 9th, 1943-46
  • AL Hit By Pitch: 7th, 1941-4
  • AL Caught Stealing: 1st, 1941-12; 9th, 1943-8; 10th, 1942-9
  • AL Putouts as LF: 2nd, 1938-237; 4th, 1939-263; 4th, 1942-316; 4th, 1945-212; 5th, 1943-228
  • AL Assists as LF: 3rd, 1942-11; 5th, 1939-7; 5th, 1940-6
  • AL Errors as LF: 2nd, 1942-7; 2nd, 1943-9; 3rd, 1938-7; 3rd, 1939-10; 3rd, 1945-6
  • AL Double Plays Turned as LF: 2nd, 1939-2; 2nd, 1943-1; 3rd, 1942-2; 3rd, 1944-2; 4th, 1938-2; 5th, 1941-1
  • AL Assists as RF: 1st, 1941-16
  • AL Errors as RF: 1st, 1941-11
  • AL Assists as OF: 3rd, 1941-20
  • AL Errors as RF: 1st, 1941-15
  • AL Range Factor/Game LF: 2nd, 1939-2.50; 4th, 1938-2.14; 4th, 1940-2.26; 4th, 1942-2.27; 5th, 1945-2.13
  • AL Fielding Percentage as LF: 3rd, 1938-.972; 3rd, 1939-.964; 4th, 1942-.979; 5th, 1943-.963
  • AL Fielding Percentage as RF: 5th, 1941-.953

Cleveland Indians Career Leader

  • 23rd WAR Position Players (24.9)
  • 23rd oWAR (24.2)
  • 25th Average (.298)
  • t-36th On Base Percentage (.366)
  • 11th Slugging (.506)
  • 14th OPS (.872)
  • 33rd Games Played (957)
  • 35th At Bats (3489)
  • 35th Plate Appearances (3875)
  • 28th Runs Scored (546)
  • 30th Hits (1040)
  • 20th Total Bases (1766)
  • t-24th Doubles (194)
  • 5th Triples (83)
  • 15th Home Runs (122)
  • 15th Runs Batted In (619)
  • 33rd Bases On Balls (366)
  • t-28th Strikeouts (438)
  • 45th Stolen Bases (52)
  • 38th Singles (641)
  • 11th OPS+ (137)
  • 18th Runs Created (643)
  • 14th Extra Base Hits (399)
  • t-24th Caught Stealing (40)

Cleveland Indians Season Leader

  • t-42nd oWAR (6.0, 1941)
  • t-37th Average (.343, 1938)
  • t-43rd Average (.340, 1941)
  • 16th Slugging (.602, 1938)
  • 25th Slugging (.586, 1941)
  • 33rd OPS (.985, 1938)
  • t-34th OPS (.982, 1941)
  • t-28th Hits (199, 1941)
  • 13th Total Bases (343, 1941)
  • t-40th Total Bases (302, 1938)
  • t-5th Triples (20, 1941)
  • t-8th Triples (18, 1938)
  • t-29th Triples (13, 1942)
  • 19th Runs Batted In (123, 1941)
  • t-42nd Runs Batted In (112, 1938)
  • t-25th OPS+ (168, 1945)
  • t-32nd OPS+ (162, 1941)
  • t-45th OPS+ (155, 1943)
  • 28th Runs Created (132, 1941)
  • t-20th Extra Base Hits (76, 1941)
  • t-38th Extra Base Hits (70, 1938)
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