Card Corner Plus: The Redemption of Lenny Randle

One horrible and regrettable act does not define Lenny Randle as a person.

One horrible and regrettable act does not define Lenny Randle as a person.

As we move into a new year, we also make the important transition from our retrospective on 1974 Topps to a look back at the 1975 Topps set. With its unique multi-colored borders (so emblematic of the psychedelic culture of the mid-1970s) and fruitful mix of action and portrait shots, the 1975 set remains a favorite of collectors who specialize in vintage cards.

One of my favorites from this iconic set is Lenny Randle’s card. I like the colors on the borders; brown and orange seem to mix well in the 1975 set. It’s also worth noting that Topps chose to designate the veteran infielder as “Len Randle” and not “Lenny Randle.” Topps did that with most of his cards, and I’m not sure why. I always heard broadcasters and managers refer to him as Lenny, and never Len, so the name designation creates a bit of a curiosity as well.

More importantly, Topps has supplied us with an unusual kind of action shot here, with Randle letting out a nearly discernible yell at the end of a completed swing. Based solely on his angry reaction, we can only imagine that he has popped up weakly, or made an out in some other inconsequential way. It’s a perfect example of the frustration that comes with being a major league hitter, where the success rate is usually fewer than three times every 10 at-bats.

Randle1975For a middle-of-the-road player like Randle, who sometimes struggled with his hitting and his ability to reach base, it was the kind of frustration that he felt too often while coming to bat for the Rangers. It was also the type of frustration that can bubble over in a player’s relationship with his manager, as we would eventually see all too plainly.

In 1977, Randle would become embroiled in one of the nastiest incidents in baseball history. It’s one of the few examples of a player attacking his manager, not verbally, but physically. It was unexpected, frightening, bizarre, and not at all typical of a man who had generally been a model citizen throughout his major league career.

Randle had rated as a top prospect early in his professional tenure. The Washington Senators thought so much of the speedster that they not only took him with their first pick of the 1970 amateur draft (10th overall) but also assigned him to their top affiliate at Triple-A Denver. At 21, he clearly was not ready for such a lofty assignment, as evidenced by a paltry .208 batting average in 46 games.

Undeterred, the Senators returned Randle to Denver in 1971. Randle proved much better the second time around, hitting a solid .288 to start the season. By mid-June, the Senators deemed him ready for another step up, bringing him to Washington. Filling a role as a part-time second baseman, the right-handed hitting Randle showed growing pains by hitting only .219 in 75 games.

After the 1971 season, the Senators relocated to Texas and became the Rangers, and they brought Randle along for the ride as their Opening Day second baseman. By now Randle had returned to switch-hitting, something he had done at Arizona State.

Manager Ted Williams came away impressed with Randle during spring training. “This kid keeps looking so good you have to overlook his mistakes,” Williams told sportswriter Merle Heryford. “He makes a great throw and then he gums up an easy one. But he’s like our club. He’s gonna get better day by day.”

Based largely on his spring training promise, Williams made Randle his leadoff man and watched him go 0-for-4 in the opener against California’s Andy Messersmith. Unfortunately, the Opening Day output would portend a poor season at the plate. Batting a horrid .193 with only 13 walks over a half-season, Randle lost the second base job and earned himself a return ticket to Triple-A Denver.

His confidence sagging, Randle batted a mediocre .261 over the balance of the minor league season. Unsure about his hitting, the Rangers sent him back to Triple-A in 1973, this time to their new affiliate in Spokane. Showing renewed vigor in the batter’s box and on the bases Randle hit a solid .283 and swiped 39 stolen bases. His performance earned him a 10-game call-up to Texas in mid-September.

In 1974, Randle enjoyed the breakthrough that his career desperately needed. With a new manager in Billy Martin, who loved Randle’s hustle and scrappiness, Randle found his way. Martin used him all over the field, both in the infield and outfield, but principally at third base. Effectively becoming an everyday player, Randle batted .302 and stole 26 bases. Granted, he didn’t walk often (only 29 times), but his speed, versatility and live bat made him a valuable member of the improved Rangers. Randle played so well that he earned some back-of-the-ballot support in the American League’s MVP voting.

Randle became a strong favorite of Martin, reminding his manager of Cesar Tovar, the pepperpot utility player Billy the Kid had managed in Minnesota. Martin loved Randle’s enthusiasm, his hustle, and his willingness to play any position on the field. Simply put, Randle became a “manager’s player,” one who was happy to do anything that his skipper wanted in contributing to the cause.

In 1975, Randle’s batting average fell off to .276, but he improved in other aspects of the game. He doubled his walks (from 29 to 57), which allowed his on-base percentage to rise to a career-high .341. He also shifted his primary position from third base to second base, but continued to put in time at other spots, including cameo appearances at shortstop and catcher.

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Randle played well for the Rangers that season, but the middle of the summer also brought about an unwanted change. The Rangers fired Martin, replacing him with Frank Lucchesi. While Randle was one of Martin’s pets, he would become something else with Lucchesi, who did not appreciate his talents as much as his predecessor.

Playing a full season for Lucchesi in 1976, Randle saw his performance fall off significantly. Rumors circulated that he might be traded to the Tigers. His batting average dropped to .224, reminiscent of the struggles of his rookie year. He was also reckless on the bases, stealing 30, but getting caught 15 times.

Given such results, Lucchesi and the Rangers contemplated a switch that offseason. With top prospect Bump Wills, the son of Maury Wills, in the pipeline, the Rangers saw no reason to commit to Randle as their starting second baseman in 1977.

In March, Randle reported to spring training in Pompano Beach, Fla., rather unhappily. He had heard the wintertime discussion about Wills and the possibility that the rookie might take his job away. Randle approached Lucchesi, who assured him that no decision had been made prior to spring training. The spring would feature an open competition between Randle and Wills.

The early weeks of spring training indicated otherwise. Lucchesi played Wills about twice as often as the veteran Randle. Randle believed Wills was receiving preferential treatment in the battle for playing time. He began referring to himself as “The Phantom Ranger,” a player whom the Rangers simply wanted to disappear. Although Lucchesi praised Randle as the “hardest worker we have in camp,” he soon announced that Wills had won the job. And with the Rangers committed to Toby Harrah at third base, they had no place for Randle to play regularly.

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.

After talking to two of his teammates, first baseman Mike Hargrove and ace right-hander Gaylord Perry, Randle changed his mind. They both advised Randle to stay in camp and try to work out the problem with the manager. When Lucchesi later learned that Randle had come close to leaving the Rangers, he expressed regret that Hargrove and Perry had talked him out of it.

“I wish they’d have let him go,” said an exasperated Lucchesi. “If he thinks I’m going to beg him to stay on this team, he’s wrong. I’m sick of punks making $80,000 a year moaning and groaning about their situation.”

Keep in mind that a salary of $80,000 for a ballplayer in 1977 represented awfully good money, especially for a player coming off such a poor season. Yet, it really wasn’t the reference to Randle’s salary that irritated the situation. 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 racial implications, especially when coming from a white manager in describing a black player. Although Lucchesi offered no apology to Randle, he reportedly confided to coaches and team officials that he regretted using the word “punks.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Randle showed little immediate anger over the remark. In fact, he repeatedly joked with teammates about being a punk. The incident appeared to blow over.

A few days later, Randle could be seen chatting calmly with his manager on the field prior to an exhibition game against the Twins in Orlando. Most of the players went about their usual pre-game business, their backs turned away from Randle and Lucchesi, who still was in street clothes. Without warning, 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 completely 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 Bert Campaneris and Jim Fregosi leading the charge. Unfortunately, they didn’t arrive in time to prevent Randle from inflicting considerable damage to Lucchesi. Rangers outfielder Ken Henderson then lunged toward Randle, but was held back by his teammates.

This was no harmless scuffle, but rather a targeted and brutal assault. 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 with Randle quickly. General manager Dan O’Brien announced that he had suspended Randle for 30 games and fined him a total of $10,000.

The entire incident puzzled the Texas media. Unlike some trouble-making athletes who repeatedly find themselves buried in controversy, Randle had accumulated a spotless record during his career with the Rangers and Senators. Well-educated and well-liked, Randle had always played hard for his managers and was extremely popular with his teammates. In particular, he had become a favorite of Martin, who was not always the most rational man in the dugout and a man 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 innocent and amicable?

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 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 chose not to pursue the matter.

Randle then tried to apologize to Lucchesi, who had spent five days in the hospital because of his injuries and had to undergo plastic surgery, 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.”

Even Randle’s teammates were left disgusted by his actions. “It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever witnessed,” said Ken Henderson, who had tried to fight Randle after witnessing the attack. “No way I’m going to play on the same field with him again.”

Clearly, Randle’s violent attack against Lucchesi had sealed his fate in Texas. He and Lucchesi—not to mention Randle and his teammates—could not co-exist. So on April 27, just before Randle’s suspension was scheduled to end, the Rangers announced that they had traded him to the Mets, who were more than a little desperate for someone to play third base. The Rangers accepted a small sum of cash and a limited utility infielder named Rick Auerbach.

Yet the incident didn’t end there. Randle was hit with a criminal charge of assault and forced to pay a fine of over $1,000. Claiming that the attack left him with pain that recurred for several months, Lucchesi also filed a civil law suit against Randle.

If the aftermath of the incident bothered Randle, it didn’t show in his performance with the Mets. Counseled by Mets coach Willie Mays, he found a comfort zone in New York. Playing both third and second base, Randle responded by hitting .304, drawing 65 walks, reaching base 38 percent of the time, and stealing 33 bases, all career highs.

Randle would never again match those numbers. In 1978, he slumped to .233 with only 14 stolen bases. And then, shortly after acquiring Richie Hebner to play third base, the Mets shocked Randle by releasing him near the end of spring training in 1979.

Randle remained unemployed until mid-May, when the Giants signed him to a minor league contract and assigned him to Triple-A Phoenix. But he played unspectacularly in Phoenix and never actually made it to San Francisco, instead becoming part of the famed Bill Madlock trade with the Pirates. The Giants included Randle as a throw-in with pitchers Ed Whitson, Fred Breining and Al Holland, who went to Pittsburgh for Madlock and veteran lefty Dave Roberts.

As it turned out, Randle would never play for the Pirates either. On Aug. 3, the Pirates sold Randle to the Yankees, where he was reunited with Billy Martin. The move generated few headlines, largely because it took place shortly after the horrific plane crash that killed Yankees catcher Thurman Munson. But Randle’s addition to the Yankees was notable in that he took the roster spot of Munson, who had died one day earlier.

Employed as a utility outfielder and designated hitter, Randle did little with the Yankees, who allowed him to become a free agent at season’s end. Still only 31 and hoping for more playing time, Randle signed with the Mariners, who needed a third baseman but ended up selling his contract to the Cubs. In the midst of a never-ending search for a third baseman, the Cubs found a decent solution in Randle, who compiled a .343 on-base percentage for Chicago.

Randle played reasonably well for the Cubs, but his age and lack of power made him expendable. Again becoming a free agent, he signed with the Mariners. Randle did little for the M’s in two seasons, but gained notoriety for another incident, one that was less controversial than his attack on Lucchesi. On May 27, 1981, Randle approached a slow roller hit by Kansas City’s Amos Otis. Falling to all fours, Randle began blowing on the ball, which eventually rolled foul. Home plate umpire Larry McCoy, after an argument from Royals manager Jim Frey, ruled that Randle’s maneuver was illegal and that the ball should be considered fair, awarding Otis first base:

Although no major league team expressed interest in Randle after the 1982 season, he found an alternative venue, signing a contract with Nettuno of the Italian League, where he batted a cool .502. He later played in the ill-fated Senior League and made a failed return as a replacement player with the Angels in 1995 before calling it quits. Fluent in both Italian and Spanish, Randle is now back in the Italian League, as the manager of the Nettuno franchise.

While Randle is still remembered for the controversy of 1977, his conflict with Lucchesi did come to a peaceful ending. A little more than a year after the attack, the two men shook hands, having reached what they called an amicable out-of-court settlement. Randle later participated in a clinic with Lucchesi. “We did a clinic around that [the incident] and I talked about it and channeling your anger,” Randle told USA Today Baseball Weekly in 1997. “I played a softball game and [Lucchesi] was there. I hit a triple, slid, and got up and gave Frank a hug.” Lucchesi, for his part, has never completely forgiven Randle, but has resisted the temptation to publicly dwell on the conflict.

In the years after his major league career, 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 has served as a motivational speaker. He owns and operates a sports academy, where he encourages participants with the slogan, “Don’t Blow It. Stay in School.” Those who have met Randle say he has a kind of energy and enthusiasm rarely seen in the game. He seems to bear little resemblance to the man who was once considered a pariah within the National Pastime.

There’s no way to justify what Randle did to Lucchesi on that spring day in 1977. Randle was wrong, and has admitted as much. But he’s also an example of how baseball usually affords opportunities for redemption to its players. Unlike some, Randle has made the most of that opportunity, becoming a kind of unofficial ambassador for the game while finding creative ways to teach the fundamentals to younger generations.

Given that second chance, Lenny Randle has done well.

References & Resources

  • The Sporting News
  • USA Today Baseball Weekly


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I’m glad Randle was able to move on, but it shocks me that he had initially appealed the suspension. He’s actually lucky he didn’t go to jail, especially since it appears the attack may have been premeditated. Lucchesi was wrong for his choice of words but he certainly did not deserve to be assaulted. Just think what would happen today if a player beat up his manager or coach. I hadn’t even remembered this incident but with social media today, there is no way it would not have been headline news.

Jim G.
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Jim G.

Great article, Bruce. It seems to me whatever Lucchesi said in the “calm” conversation leading to the altercation is key to what set off Randle.
You might want to check your retelling of the Giants-Pirates trade. I think the last sentence in that paragraph should read “….who went to San Francisco for Madlock…”

Bruce Markusen
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Bruce Markusen

Marc, I’m guessing that the Players’ Association encouraged him to file an appeal. That seems to be their standing operating procedure, even when the player has clearly done something wrong. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been critical of the union over the years. It really reflects a lack of common sense and decency.

That is not to say that there are not many times when the union should file a grievance. But in the case of Randle or Shawn Chacon, who attacked his general manager, there is simply no justification.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Bruce, you make a good point. Thanks. The union feels it needs to protect the process and I can sort of understand that.

The whole thing goes to show how the athletic culture is often divorced from real life. In the context of sports, it seems that physical violence is sometimes seen as a viable option. Randle doesn’t seem like he is a bad guy and I’m sure he would not think of attacking someone today.

charlie
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charlie

I have to wonder why Lucchesi made no effort to apologize for his part in this incident. I believe Randle is the better man for owning up to his mistake here and moving on… did Lucchesi?

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

In fairness to Lucchesi, Randle is not the one who suffered three fractured cheekbones, a concussion, broken ribs, and an injured back. I think it’s a bit unreasonable to expect Lucchesi to simply “move on” from that.

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

I have to wonder if Luchessi made a racial comment. In that era, it would not have been uncommon for an old school type like Luchessi to let loose a racially tinged tirade. Given Randle’s normal disposition, this is the only provocation to make sense.

BlftBucco
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BlftBucco
Bruce wrote: “It’s also worth noting that Topps chose to designate the veteran infielder as “Len Randle” and not “Lenny Randle.” Topps did that with most of his cards, and I’m not sure why. I always heard broadcasters and managers refer to him as Lenny, and never Len, so the name designation creates a bit of a curiosity as well.” Interesting that the facsimile autograph on the 75 card as well as other years that Topps used a facsimile autograph is that they are signed “Len” and not “Lenny”. If you look on ebay, Randle nearly always signs “Lenny”, makes… Read more »
Bruce Markusen
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Bruce Markusen
Dennis, Lucchesi called Randle a “punk.” At the time, that could have been interpreted as a racial slight, or it could have been interpreted as merely an insult. It’s hard to know for sure whether Lucchesi was motivated by race in making the statement. It would really depend on context, and whether or not Lucchesi had a reputation for being a racist. As far as I know, he did not. But no matter how we interpret Lucchesi’s statement, Randle’s reaction was so egregious and overboard that it cannot be justified. Randle assaulted Lucchesi, a much older man, so badly that… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
There is, or was, a legal concept called “fighting words” in which, if you used certain words toward a person, that would constitute a defense of his actions if he hit you. I don’t think that legal doctrine still exists or, if it does, it would be used only in the most extreme situations. Arguably, if Lucchesi used the “N” word toward Randle, that might have been some justification, but I doubt that he did because I think it would be hard to have kept that a secret. “Punk,” while it has potentially some racial connotations, would not, I think,… Read more »