Dave Duncan’s long career in professional baseball dates back to 1963, but it was his incredible performance in 1966 with Modesto of the California League that earned him entrance to the league’s Hall of Fame on Tuesday night.
Duncan was one of five new inductees as part of the second class of the California League’s Hall of Fame during a pregame ceremony on Tuesday night in Visalia, California, prior to the All-Star Game between in the North and South Divisions. The longtime baseball lifer was joined by his former coaching partner Tony La Russa, two other Major League Hall of Famers in Mike Piazza and Kirby Puckett, and umpire Doug Harvey.
“The League is extremely proud to announce the selection of these five individuals to the Hall of Fame,” said Cal League president Charlie Blaney in a statement. “From former Rookies of the Year to perennial All-Stars to world class managers, coaches, and umpires, this class represents the diversity of legends that have made this league so great over the years.”
Duncan found himself in the Majors after a small sample size of games in the minor leagues, debuting in 1964 as a bonus baby for the Kansas City Athletics at the age of 18, not long after inking for a good chunk of cash from A’s owner Charles Finley. He would play at two different spots in the A’s farm system the following season before finding his way to the Cal League, where he put on a historic hitting display. That season, he played in a professional career high 121 games for the Reds, hitting just eight doubles and two triples, but amassing 46 home runs and 112 RBI while hitting .271.
The strong performance earned him a return to Kansas City in 1967. He remained with the club as it relocated to Oakland, but his pointed commentary about Finley may have cost him manager John McNamara’s job following the 1970 season. Duncan would become an American League All-Star catcher for the A’s in 1971 and spent the following season getting heavy work behind the plate for Oakland’s World Series winning “Mustache Gang” club in 1972, although he was used sparingly in the playoffs.
He held out in spring training prior to the 1973 season, later reporting and agreeing to work out with the team, but refusing to sign his contract that was automatically renewed by Finley. He wanted a raise in the ball park of $20,000 and Finley would not budge beyond a $10,000 increase. Finley would hold firm and instead would deal the catcher to the Cleveland Indians prior to the start of the season with outfielder George Hendrick for catcher Ray Fosse and infielder Jack Heidemann.
“I was very happy to be traded,” Duncan was quoted in the New York Times following the move. “It eliminated a lot of the mental hassles I had.”
Duncan appeared in 231 games for the Indians in regular work over the 1973 and 1974 seasons, hitting .215 with 33 home runs and 89 RBI during his stay in Cleveland.
In February of 1975, he was on the move again as the Indians sent him to Baltimore with minor league outfielder Alvin McGrew for pitcher Don Hood and fan favorite first baseman and former 1970 AL MVP Boog Powell. He spent two seasons with the Orioles in a platoon role, hitting .205 in 189 games behind the plate. He was traded in the offseason to the Chicago White Sox, but was released just before the start of the next season, ending his playing career.
Following his playing days, Duncan made a better name for himself as a pitching coach, a title he held longer (32 years) than anyone else to do the job in the Majors. His first coaching opportunity came with the Indians organization, who used him in the role of bullpen coach before later promoting him to pitching coach. He worked in a similar capacity in Seattle and then in Chicago with the White Sox, where he joined La Russa’s staff. He found his greatest deal of success with La Russa and the pair remained together for the next two decades, working in both Oakland with the A’s and later in St. Louis with the Cardinals after their firing by former Indians outfielder Ken Harrelson, who was the White Sox general manager at the time.
Duncan worked with four different pitchers who would become Cy Young Award winners under his watch and was able to return to the World Series in 1989 (Oakland), 2006, and 2011 (St. Louis) as a pitching coach on La Russa’s staff.
Duncan was tied again to the city of Cleveland later in his life as his son, Shelley Duncan, played for the Indians from 2010 to 2012, after three seasons with the New York Yankees and before one final season in the Majors with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013. Shelley currently works in the Cal League as the manager of the Rawhide franchise and managed the 2017 California League North All-Stars. Another son, Chris Duncan, was a Cardinals outfielder and first baseman during the elder Duncan’s time in St. Louis.
He remains active in baseball still today, working as a special assistant to the general manager and a pitching consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks, reunited with the club’s Chief Baseball Analyst, La Russa. His placement in the Cal League Hall of Fame was not his first such honor – he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2014 for his work as the Cardinals pitching coach.
The Cal League inducted 15 individuals as part of its inaugural class last season during the league’s 75th season. Those enshrined included players George Brett, Jose Cruz Jr., Don Drysdale, Darin Erstad, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson, Reggie Jackson, Pedro Martinez, Xavier Nady, Vada Pinson, Gary Sheffield, Bob Talbot, Fernando Valenzuela, and Omar Vizquel and non-player Sam Lynn.
Photo: 1973 Cleveland Indians postcard