Longtime Detroit Tigers catcher, utilityman John Wockenfuss dies at 73

John Wockenfuss, the Detroit Tigers player who could field just about any position and had a batting stance like nobody else, died Friday.

He was 73.

Wockenfuss, heralded as one of Delaware's most accomplished athletes of all time, spent parts of 10 seasons with the Tigers and worked his way up from little-used backup catcher to a key pinch-hitter and utility player. He had a hand in a key trade that spurred the team's 1984 title and eventually managed in the organization's minor leagues.

His offense improved from .222 and three home runs in 1976 to .274 and nine home runs in 1977. Wockenfuss, also known as "Fuss" or "Johnny B.," began to play in the outfield the following season as his playing time continued to rise.

John Wockenfuss played for the Detroit Tigers from 1974 to 1983. He died Aug. 19, 2022 at the age of 73.
John Wockenfuss played for the Detroit Tigers from 1974 to 1983. He died Aug. 19, 2022 at the age of 73.

Wockenfuss' best season was 1980, in which achieved 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 season prior. Along with catching and playing the outfield, he was a designated hitter, third baseman, first baseman and one of the team's top pinch-hitters in the early 1980s.

In 12 total seasons and 2,072 career at-bats (795 games), he hit .262 with 86 home runs and walked (277) nearly as often as he struck out (278).

Despite being traded from the Tigers ahead of a run to the 1984 World Series, Wockenfuss played a role in that legendary team's construction.

The Free Press reported in March 1984 he had grown unhappy with his pay and role — he notched seven game-winning RBI and played five different positions over 92 games for the Tigers in 1983.

Wockenfuss told reporters he made $200,000 in 1983 and wasn't happy with his how his self-represented negotiations with the Tigers panned out.

"As soon as I signed, they started giving these clowns $800,000," Wockenfuss said prior to the 1984 season.

John Wockenfuss began playing first base and the outfield, along with his backup catcher duties, for the Tigers in the late 1970s until he was traded in 1984.
John Wockenfuss began playing first base and the outfield, along with his backup catcher duties, for the Tigers in the late 1970s until he was traded in 1984.

He identified the Philadelphia Phillies, because of their proximity to his Delaware home, as a dream destination. Within weeks, Wockenfuss and Glenn Wilson were traded for left-hander Willie Hernandez — who would go on to win the 1984 American League Cy Young and MVP awards as the Tigers' relief ace — and first baseman Dave Bergman.

Hernandez and Bergman were key to the World Series title, while Wockenfuss remained in a part-time role with the Phillies and continued to rake (.289/.390/.417 and six home runs in 86 games). But by 1985, in his age-36 season, Wockenfuss saw his playing time dwindle and his batting average fall below .200 for the first time since his rookie year.

After two seasons in Philly, he retired, but not before lamenting parts of his time there and pointing out that he was one of the team's best hitters vs. 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."

John Wockenfuss developed a unique batting stance in the late 1970s during his time with the Detroit Tigers.
John Wockenfuss developed a unique batting stance in the late 1970s during his time with the Detroit Tigers.

But Wockenfuss will be remembered for his versatility, his clutch hitting and, of course, his batting style.

He switched his stance ahead of the 1977 season, standing near the back edge of the batter's box, putting his feet close together and tucking his front shoulder so close to his chin, he looked as if he were turning his back to the pitcher.

Wockenfuss credits the change for his improved performance; from 1977 on, he posted above-average OPSes with the Tigers every season (save for a down 1981 season, when he batted an uncharacteristic .215 in 70 games).

Originally drafted as a pitcher by the then-Washington Senators in 1967, Wockenfuss was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in June 1973 before being dealt to the Tigers six months later.

After managing the Tigers' minor league clubs in Lakeland, Florida; Glens Falls, New York and Toledo, Ohio, he managed in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. By 1994, back problems and surgeries forced him to retire from MLB, and he took up training and independent league coaching.

Wockenfuss had been reportedly battling dementia prior to his death.

Tyler Davis can be contacted at tjdavis@freepress.com or on Twitter @TDavisFreep.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: John Wockenfuss: Former Detroit Tigers catcher, utilityman dies at 73