Mel Queen, PCL Padres Star

The late Mel Queen is best known these days as a pitching guru. In Toronto, Pat Hentgen and Roger Clemens won Cy Young Awards under his watch.

Queen also worked with a young right-hander who had a great arm but who didn’t know how to pitch. According to John Lott’s article in the December 17, 2009, Ottawa Citizen, Queen tweaked the hurler’s delivery and gave him some tough love:

There’s no one I made such drastic changes to and verbally abused the way I did Doc. There aren’t many people that would have gone through what I put him through. I had to make him understand that he was very unintelligent about baseball. He had no idea about the game.

“Doc” is Roy Halladay. He turned out to be pretty good.

Before Queen made his mark molding other arms, he was a pitcher himself (as was his father, Mel Queen Sr., before him). The right-hander out of San Luis Obispo went 14-8 with a 2.76 ERA in 1967, his first full season in the Reds rotation. Unfortunately Queen blew out his arm the next year and, despite enjoying marginal success out of the Angels bullpen in 1971, never was the same.

Queen first reached the big leagues as an outfielder but earned rave reviews from teammates who took batting practice against him. As he noted, “My fast ball would really move and the guys would talk about it. I can make it take off or sink depending on how I hold it.”

In 1963, when a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon cost $1.44 and you could fly from Los Angeles to San Diego on PSA for $6.35, the 21-year-old Queen still played the outfield. With the Padres that year he hit .260/.308/.472, and tied for fifth in the PCL with 25 homers, just ahead of future Minnesota Twins star Tony Oliva.

Queen’s season started late thanks to a “damaged tendon” in his right arm. On May 1, at Salt Lake City, his inside-the-park home run helped propel the Padres to a 5-3 victory. From Johnny McDonald’s recap in the San Diego Union:

Queen looked anything like a home run hitter when he came to the plate limping, and with his right wrist heavily bandaged. But he smacked reliever Freddie Burdette’s first pitch into the deepest center-field corner, about 420 feet away, and legged it around the bases with all the speed he could muster.

This was Queen’s first hit for the Padres, coming in his ninth plate appearance with the club. It capped a four-run inning and helped snap a five-game losing streak.

They beat the Bees again the next day, 18-5. Queen went 3-for-6 with a double and his second homer, as the Padres pulled to 10-10 on the young season.

Batting fifth and playing left field, he homered again in a May 8 win at Denver. Six days later, “the young centerfielder who continues to swat base hits in the clutch, drove in three runs with a pair of singles to pace the attack” in a 6-1 victory over the Seattle Rainiers in front of 1,782 at Westgate Park.

On May 18, while Candy Spots won the Preakness Stakes by 3 ½ lengths over Kentucky Derby winner Chateauguy, the Padres beat the Rainiers in Seattle, 5-1. This time, Queen drew praise for his defense:

Mel Queen’s spectacular catch of Stan Johnson’s Texas Leaguer in the seventh robbed the Rainiers of a run… Queen raced in far to bag Johnson’s fly, then did a somersault but held onto the ball for the third out.

I probably would have called it a “ducksnort” rather than a Texas Leaguer. And I’m not sure I could have written “bag Johnson’s fly” with a straight face, but these were different times. Errors were still referred to in print as boners. The Union had a Women’s section that featured such topical items as “Adventures Of Travelers Top Talk At Parties.”

By mid-June, with Kate Hepburn’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night playing at The Academy on University and 38th, and Marlon Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty at The Capri on Park, the Padres and the PCL had hit their stride. The league’s attendance was up 35 percent from the previous year, with PCL President Dewey Soriano expecting to entertain 1.4 million fans by season’s end. The Padres would rank second in the circuit, drawing 202,765 people to Westgate Park.

They finished 83-74, a half game back of first-place (and eventual league champion) Oklahoma City in the Southern Division. Deron Johnson, whose 33 home runs paced the circuit, was the Padres’ big star. Johnson batted cleanup, with the up-and-coming Queen typically batting third and playing center field.

Queen got the call to Cincinnati in 1964 and hit .200/.232/.284 in a reserve role. He knocked the only two home runs of his big-league career that year. The second came against Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.

Returning to San Diego the next season, Queen slipped to .275/.335/.399, with 14 homers. Lee May starred for the 1965 Padres, which sadly finished 22 ½ games out of first place.

Meanwhile, Queen’s days as a position player were done. And although shoulder miseries shortened his pitching career, the man made an impact on the game. As he later recalled of his tutelage of Halladay:

I don’t think I ever talked to anybody I hated worse than I talked to him, and I liked him. It was unbelievable how bad it was. He should have knocked my head off and walked out.

History will show that Halladay did no such thing. And although he may have been Queen’s most famous pupil in the Blue Jays organization, he wasn’t the only one.

According to a Corey Brock article from 2009, Queen also worked with a young right-hander out of Mount Carmel High School and Palomar College who never reached the big leagues as a player. Darren Balsley now serves as Buddy Black’s pitching coach.

The next time you watch Balsley head out for a mound conference, remember Queen. Remember the 25 homers he hit for the PCL Padres in 1963. Remember our history.

* * *

Do you remember anyone from the PCL Padres or, failing that, a time when someone other than hipsters drank PBR? Leave a comment, send an email (geoff@sonofaduck.com), or hit me up on Twitter (@ducksnorts).

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  • Deron Johnson had a daughter when he was really, really old. She was the scorekeeper when I played baseball as a freshman in HS. His son Dom would come work out at our school and help out with the team prior to leaving for Spring Training. His other son Deron, after retiring from minor league baseball, was a golf pro at the course I worked at in HS. I didn’t know at the time that Deron Johnson (Sr) had played for the PCL Padres – in fact I don’t think I knew they existed

    • Cool story, GY.

    • Geoff Young

      Thanks for the additional info, AJM. It’s neat to look back at these old teams and see so many guys who later became famous. Tony Pérez would be a prime example. I may have to write about him at some point.

  • KC

    Great article, Geoff. Most don’t remember that the PCL Padres were a Cincinnati Reds farm team in the mid-60s when Queen was here and that some of the earliest cogs in the Big Red Machine came through San Diego. In addition to Queen and Lee May, HOFer Tony Perez and Tommy Helms also were Padres in the Westgate Park era.

  • Frank K

    Hey, Geoff. I was glued to the Pad games back when the fake radio broadcasts with Al Coupee and Al Schuss (sp?) used to use a teletype machine and sound effects to re-create the games. I remember Johnson tearing up the league then getting called up by Cincy, Lee May, and before them my fave players included old timers Dom Zanni, Joe Taylor, Ken Walters, and Art Shamsky before he got his 15 minutes of MLB fame. I think Tony Perez played for them, and a few other players, but I kinda liked the guys who were good, career AAA players like Walters and Zanni. When I was about 12 I never missed a game and caught a few at Westgate Park, which was a super place to see a game at the time. I wish they had never torn it down.

    • Geoff Young

      Good to hear from you, Frank. Those are fun names. I’d be interested to learn more about Taylor, who didn’t start playing pro ball until age 25 but who hit more than 200 home runs in the minors. I would love to go back in time and watch a game at Westgate Park or even Lane Field. Those teams from the late-’40s featured some serious sluggers. I’ll be writing about a couple of them in the future. Thanks again for the thoughts; it’s always good to get a little first-hand knowledge.