Len Randle–Topps Company–1978 (No. 544)
Shawn Chacon will never throw another pitch for the Houston Astros’ franchise. It simply won’t happen, not after Chacon foolishly put a chokehold onto the neck of Astros general manager Ed Wade before throwing him to the ground. Yet, we shouldn’t be misled into thinking that Chacon’s career has necessarily come to a complete and sudden end. Baseball precedent indicates Chacon could find work pitching for someone, even though he has already been suspended–and then released without pay–by the Astros.
I can’t ever recall a player physically attacking his own general manager, but I remember very well a frightful incident that involved a player and his manager. And while I don’t mean to minimize what Chacon did (he deserves a ban from baseball for at least a month), his actions pale in comparison to what took place 31 years ago.
In March of 1977, Texas Rangers infielder Lenny Randle reported to spring training in Pompano Beach, Florida–rather unhappily. As the Rangers’ starting second baseman the previous season, Randle was upset by off-season speculation that had rookie Bump Wills taking his job. Manager Frank Lucchesi assured Randle that no decision had been made; he and Wills would both be allowed to compete for the second base position.
During the early weeks of spring training, Lucchesi played Wills about twice as often as the veteran Randle. The handwriting appeared clear to Randle, who thought Wills was receiving preferential treatment in the battle for playing time. Although Lucchesi praised Randle as the “hardest worker we have in camp,” he soon announced that Wills had won the job. On March 24, as the Rangers prepared to play a spring training game, Randle rushed into the Texas clubhouse and packed up two duffel bags worth of clothes. Randle told reporters that he was leaving the team.
Randle thought better of his threat to leave–after talking to two of his more levelheaded teammates. Mike Hargrove and Gaylord Perry both advised Randle to stay in camp and try to work out the problem. When Lucchesi learned that Randle had come close to leaving the Rangers, he expressed regret (rather surprisingly) that Hargrove and Perry had talked him out of it.
“I wish they’d have let him go,” said Lucchesi. “If he thinks I’m going to beg him to stay on this team, he’s wrong. I’m sick of punks [who are] making $80,000 a year moaning and groaning about their situation.”
In the context of 21st century baseball, a salary of $80,000 for a professional athlete might sound like a mere pittance. In 1977, however, it was good money, especially for a player coming off a .224 season at the plate. Yet, it really wasn’t the reference to Randle’s salary that created a problem. It was Lucchesi’s choice of the word “punks.”
The Texas media made big play out of Lucchesi’s characterization of Randle as a “punk.” A few writers believed the word “punks” carried certain racial implications, especially when coming from a white manager (or supervisor) in describing a black player (or underling). Although Lucchesi offered no apology to Randle, he reportedly confided to coaches and team officials that he regretted using the word “punks.” Randle, however, showed little immediate anger over the remark. In fact, he repeatedly joked with teammates about being a punk.
Three days later, Randle found himself chatting calmly with his manager on the field prior to an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins in Orlando, Florida. Most of the players went about their usual pre-game business, their backs turned away from Randle and Lucchesi. Without warning, the 28-year-old Randle suddenly cocked his first and struck the 50-year-old Lucchesi in the side of the face. Lucchesi fell to the ground, landing on his backside. Randle hit him two more times, putting Lucchesi on his back. Randle then continued to throw punches at Lucchesi, who was left bleeding on the stadium grass.
By now, a number of Rangers players had noticed the altercation. Several Rangers ran toward Lucchesi and Randle, with veteran infielders Campy Campaneris and Jim Fregosi leading the charge. Unfortunately, they didn’t arrive in time to prevent Randle from inflicting considerable damage to Lucchesi’s face, chest, and back.
Lucchesi suffered three fractures to his cheekbone, a concussion, two broken ribs, and an injured back. As plastic surgeons prepared to repair the bones in Lucchesi’s face, Rangers management dealt swiftly with Randle. General manager Dan O’Brien suspended the switch-hitting infielder for 30 days without pay.
Unlike some troublemaking athletes who repeatedly find themselves buried in controversy, Randle had accumulated a spotless record during his major league career with the Rangers and Washington Senators. Well-educated and well liked, Randle had always played hard for his managers and enjoyed solid relationships with his teammates. In particular, he had become a favorite of former Rangers skipper Billy Martin, not always the most rational man in the dugout and a manager who was often difficult to please. So why had a good citizen like Randle suddenly turned bad, assaulting Lucchesi during a conversation that had seemed so amicable at the beginning?
There were other questions, too. Was Randle’s action premeditated? Randle said no, claiming that when he heard the word “punks,” it prompted a “spontaneous” response. The next day, the comments of teammate and pitcher Bert Blyleven called the matter into further question. Blyleven informed a reporter that Randle had asked him what the consequences might be if he physically hit someone. Blyleven claimed that Randle had asked him the question before his assault on Lucchesi.
After initially asking for a grievance hearing before an arbitration board, Randle called off the hearing, saying that he would accept the 30-day suspension–and the accompanying $23,000 loss in salary and fines. As a result, the Players’ Association did not become involved in the matter. Perhaps Marvin Miller realized that Randle had received a relatively light sentence.
Randle then tried to apologize to Lucchesi, who had spent five days in the hospital because of his injuries, but the manager would have none of it. “Randle is on the hot seat,” Lucchesi said. “I’m not going to let him off. He could stand on the Golden Gate Bridge with the fog rolling in and I wouldn’t accept his apology.”
Clearly, Randle’s violent attack against Lucchesi had sealed the infielder’s fate in Texas. On April 27, only days before Randle’s suspension was scheduled to end, the Rangers announced that they had traded the switch-hitter to the New York Mets, who were desperate for a third baseman.
The incident didn’t end there. Lucchesi claimed that the attack left him with pain that recurred for several months. Lucchesi filed a civil law suit against Randle.
Fortunately, the story came to a peaceful ending. Over a year later, the two men shook hands, having reached what they called an amicable out-of-court settlement. Randle later played in a celebrity softball game that Lucchesi attended. “I hit a triple, slid, and got up and gave Frank a hug,” said Randle.
In the years after his major league career came to an end, Randle has lived a seemingly exemplary life that contradicts his violent actions of the spring of 1977. He often conducts baseball clinics for children and serves as a motivational speaker. He seems to bear little resemblance to the man who was once considered a pariah to baseball.
Given Randle’s success in putting the 1977 incident behind him, perhaps Chacon can do the same. Randle, a mediocre player, found work again. Chacon, a mediocre pitcher, can probably find work again, especially in light of the atrocious pitching market that currently exists. Still, there are problems. Unlike Randle, who had a clean reputation prior to his assault on Lucchesi, Chacon has a history of troublesome behavior, lowlighted by two positive tests for marijuana use and repeated displays of his temper. If (and only if) a contrite Chacon can perform a makeover to his image, he might earn that second chance that Randle once received.