This story has been corrected. Read below
Jim Hoff has been in professional baseball for 46 years, but he has never seen anyone have a season like the one Gary Redus had in 1978.
Thirty-five years later, Hoff still has trouble finding just the right way to describe what Redus did in hitting .462 for the Billings Mustangs.
In the span of 15 seconds, Hoff goes through “impressive,” “unbelievable,” “phenomenal” and “incredible.”
“It defies the imagination almost that you could put something together like that,” says Hoff, 67, who managed Billings and is now the minor league field coordinator for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Not only did he hit over .400, but it ranks as the highest average ever in American professional baseball, according to Minor League Baseball. One of Redus’ bats from that season is on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., with “.462” in large red lettering next to it.
Redus’ .462 average in his first season of professional baseball is just one of many statistics that seem like something out of a slow-pitch league.
In the short-season, rookie-level Pioneer League, Redus played in all 68 games, had 117 hits in 253 at-bats, scored 100 runs and drove in 62, hit 17 home runs, stole 42 bases and walked twice as many times as he struck out (62 to 31). His slugging average was .787, his on-base average .559 and his OPS (on-base plus slugging) was 1.346, which puts him in the same ballpark as Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds.
“You just knew he was going to get a hit every time he came to bat,” says Lew Morris, who was the team’s general manager and still lives in Billings, Mont. “He was just one of those guys, just unbelievable. It just seemed like every time he came to bat he was going to get a hit. A line-drive hitter.”
Redus, who had been drafted in the 15th round that June out of Athens State in Alabama, went straight to Billings after collecting a reported $3,000 signing bonus and immediately began hitting. In June he hit .500 (19-for-38). He had 36 multihit games, had a 16-game hitting streak, at one point was 16-for-19 and failed to reach base in only three games.
At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, the right-handed hitter was described at the time by former Dodger Jim Lefebvre -- who was managing at Lethbridge, Alberta -- as “the finest young hitter I’ve ever seen at that stage.”
Said Hoff: “He had all the physical tools that you could possibly have and I kept saying to myself, ‘How could this guy get drafted, I don’t know, 16th round or 15th round, something like that?’ How could somebody like that get drafted so low, because he was absolutely phenomenal.”
• • •
Today, Redus, 56, is retired and living in Decatur, Ala.
He had a solid big league career, playing 13 seasons for the Reds, Phillies, White Sox, Pirates and Rangers, and flashed the power and speed he first showed in Billings by stealing 322 bases, hitting 90 homers and once hitting for the cycle.
Though he never hit .300 in the big leagues, he had seasons of .301 and .333 as he climbed through the Reds organization, and had three seasons over .275 in the majors.
At Billings, however, he was Ty Cobb in a ballpark called Cobb Field (though it wasn’t named for the Hall of Famer).
Redus recalls that he’d hit .400 at Athens State that season and still felt dialed in when he got to Billings to join a team that had future major leaguers such as Nick Esasky, Skeeter Barnes, Tom Lawless and Les Straker.
“It was a great team, a lot of great teammates, and when you get into competition -- and we always had competition among each other -- our goal was to get two hits a game,” he says. “We’d say, OK, after we got two anything else was just extra, but our goal was two hits a game. …
“You’ve heard the stories about Michael Jordan when he said he was shooting and the basket looked huge, like he wasn’t going to miss? Well, when I was swinging, there were very few pitchers that I thought could get me out. I didn’t swing at a lot of bad pitches, didn’t strike out a lot. I just made good, hard contact.”
One good game led to the next and the next.
“It wasn’t luck,” he says. “To me, when you get on a roll and things start happening good, it’s just easy to stay on a roll, and I kind of got on a roll for the season.”
More amazing to Redus now as he looks back is the fact he scored 100 runs in 68 games.
At 21, Redus was the oldest player on his team and was having the time of his young life despite 15-hour bus trips and a salary of about $500 per month. He lived with his teammates in nearby college dorms and loved going to the ballpark every day to hit in a lineup that featured five .300 hitters and won the regular-season title by nine games, going 50-18.
“I hit third and drove in 60-something runs and Skeeter hit fourth and he drove in that many, too,” says Redus. “Guys that were in front of us were always on base. It was just a slugfest, really.”
He wasn’t concerned about hitting .400, making history or rushing to the big leagues.
“All I knew was we were playing, we were winning, we were having a good time and that’s the only thing that crossed my mind,” he says.
Barnes, who went on to play nine big league seasons, was Redus’ roommate and best man at his wedding and remains close with Redus. In 2006, Barnes recalled Redus' season, saying he’d never seen a player with that combination of speed and power until he later played with Eric Davis in Cincinnati.
“Even in high school and college, I never saw anyone that had it all in one package like that,” Barnes told milb.com. “That’s what I remember most about him that year. He was built like a cross between a cornerback and a sprinter. He had a big upper body and little bitty legs.”
Though Redus was fast, Hoff doesn’t remember him needing his speed to reach base on many hits. Every at-bat seemed to produce a line drive.
One was memorable.
“I was coaching third base and the opposing manager, you know his name, was Jim Lefebvre,” Hoff recalls. “And Gary hit a ball so hard at their third baseman that it hit him right in the glove and just flew out of his glove. Lefebvre said to me he’d never seen anything like that.
“There were very few leg hits in there. They were all line drives and I think he hit 17 home runs, so it was just a combination of everything. … Just an unbelievable 70 games.”
Hoff followed Redus’ career and was happy to see it was long and productive. He’s not really certain why he never hit .300 at the big league level.
“He may have been asked to do more than he could have, you know, to pull the ball more or do something like that,” says Hoff. “I really don’t know.”
Says Redus: “The weird thing is, as you move up, people want to mold you into something that they think you should be, and it always changes.”
• • •
The Mustangs didn’t draw big crowds that season, but the stands filled as the season progressed because of Redus, the way the team hit (and won) and a promotion called “Foamer.”
“For every home run that we would hit, I think they would get like 15 minutes of free beer,” recalls Redus. “It may have been more than that, because the year before, they didn’t hit any home runs, so it was, ‘OK, they hit a home run, we get beer.’ Because there weren’t a lot of people coming, I guess they figured they weren’t going to lose anything.
“Then we started hitting home runs as a team, and we hit a lot of home runs at home, and before you know it, they had to cut it back to like a minute, or the first few people who get there get a free beer, because it was like we hit a home run and it was a stampede toward the concession stand.”
Morris, who was in his first full season as GM in 1978, remembers having Foamers for five or six years. That season, when Redus and other boppers went to the plate, Morris says people would stand and get ready to charge toward the beer bar on the lower level.
Eventually, he says, the team had to stop the promotion.
“As soon as some guy would hit a home run, you’d have to run out in the hallway and make sure there wasn’t some little kid standing out there, so it got to be a little bit more of a liability than we wanted,” he says.
For Redus and Hoff, the season was special.
For Redus, it was a season that was enormously fun. He hit .400, got married in Montana that summer and embarked on a career in which he’d play with several of his Billings teammates in Cincinnati.
As the years roll by, he’s curious to see if others can approach his mark.
“It’s really kind of hard to fathom what I did because -- and here’s a weird thing -- when I was hitting .400-something they had calculated my average and said I could go 0-for-100 and still be hitting .300 at the time.”
For Hoff, the team as a whole made 1978 memorable.
“I remember we won the playoffs,” says Hoff. “It was two out of three and we won the first two games, so there was no third game and I was in my office the next day, cleaning out my office and about three-quarters of the team showed up and they said, ‘We don’t have any place else to go.’ They just enjoyed the atmosphere so much they were there all the time.”
Redus never has returned to Billings. He and the Mustangs have talked a few times about getting him back for a game, but it’s never worked out.
Yet Redus now has a souvenir from the Mustangs that makes him smile.
One day a few years ago he was doing an Internet search and found a Gary Redus bobblehead that the Mustangs had given away.
“I said, ‘Wow, there’s a Gary Redus bobblehead out there,’” he recalls, laughing. “Because I never heard that. I was like, ‘OK, I wonder where I can get one?’ So I called Billings to ask them, because they had that night, and I said, ‘Do y’all have any bobbleheads?’ He said, ‘Well, we may have one or two left. What’s your name and address and maybe we can send you one.’ And I told them, this is Gary Redus. He’s ‘What! What!’ I said, ‘Y’all had a bobblehead night and didn’t tell me. …
“They got a kick out of it that I was calling, asking for a bobblehead. They sent me five or six of them so it was kinda neat.”
An April 16 ESPN.com Playbook story about Gary Redus said he was the last professional player to hit .400 in a full season. It has been accomplished by other short-season players, most recently in 2008 by Roberto Lopez for Orem in the Pioneer League.