It was 73.
Heralded as one of Delaware’s most accomplished athletes of all time, Wockenfuss spent parts of 10 seasons with the Tigers and rose from a little-used backup catcher to a key pinch hitter and utility player. He had a hand in a key trade that sparked the team’s 1984 title run and eventually made it to the organization’s minor leagues.
His hitting improved from .222 and three home runs in 1976 to .274 and nine home runs in 1977. Walkenfuss began playing in the outfield the following season as his playing time continued to increase.
Wockenfuss’ best season was in 1980, when he hit or tied career highs in games (126), home runs (16), RBIs (65) and OPS (.839) — though he hit 15 homers in just 87 games the year before season. Along with catching and playing in the outfield, he was a designated hitter, third baseman, first baseman and one of the team’s top hitters in the early 1980s.
Despite being traded by the Tigers before a run to the 1984 World Series, Wockenfuss played a role in building that team.
The Free Press reported in March 1984 that he was unhappy with his pay and role – he had seven game-winning RBIs and played five different positions in 92 games for the Tigers in 1983.
Wockenfuss told reporters he earned $200,000 in 1983 and was unhappy with the way his negotiations with the Tigers turned out.
“As soon as I signed, they started giving these clowns $800,000,” Wockenfuss said before the 1984 season.
He identified the Philadelphia Phillies, due to their proximity to his home in Delaware, as a dream destination. Within weeks, Wockenfuss and Glenn Wilson were traded for 1984 Cy Young winner and MVP Willie Hernandez and Dave Bergman.
Hernandez and Bergman were key to the World Series title, while Wockenfuss remained in a part-time role and continued to rake (.289/.390/.417 and six home runs in 86 games). But by 1985, at age 36, Wockenfuss saw his playing time dwindle and his average dip below .200 for the first time since his rookie year.
After two seasons with the Phillies, he retired, but not before lamenting parts of his time there and noting that he was one of the team’s best hitters against left-handers.
“(The Phillies) had me there as a bullpen catcher (in 1985), carrying buckets of balls to the bullpen,” he told reporters in Florida. “They made me feel like a fool. Like a bum.”
But Wockenfuss will be remembered for his versatility, clutch hitting and, of course, his hitting style.
He changed his stance before the 1977 season, standing near the back end of the batter’s box, putting his feet together and tucking his front shoulder so close to his chin that it looked like he was turning his back on the pitcher.
Wockenfuss credits the change for his improved performance. from 1977 onward, he never had a below-average OPS with the Tigers (except for a down season in 1981, when he batted an uncharacteristic .215 in 70 games).
Originally drafted by the Washington Senators in 1967, Wockenfuss was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals before being dealt to the Tigers.
After managing the Tigers’ minor league teams in Lakeland, Florida. Glen Falls, New York and Toledo, Ohio, he managed in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. By 1994, back problems and surgeries forced him out of MLB and he began coaching and coaching in the independent league.
Wockenfuss was reportedly battling dementia before his death.
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This article originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press: Former Detroit Tigers catcher John Wockenfuss dies at 73