I recently came across a book about a subject which I must admit hasn’t always been near and dear to my heart despite my heritage. It was about Canadians who have played in the major leagues, focusing mainly on Larry Walker, but covering a history that dates back to the 1800’s.
There was one name there which especially caught my eye, a player I had forgotten about but one I consider to be one of the best to have come out of Canada. What to my mind made this player all the more remarkable was not only that he came from Canada, but where in Canada he came from.
Terry Puhl played 15 seasons in the major leagues and was a mainstay of the Houston Astros from 1977 until his retirement with the Kansas City royals in 1991. His career stats include a .280 batting average, 62 homeruns and 435 RBI. Not remarkable or eye popping perhaps but when taken in the context of the times, much better than average.
In those days, visits by scouts to hockey mad Canada were either few and far between, or subject to more skepticism than visits around the USA. Certainly this attitude was justified. The baseball season in Canada is much shorter than the USA or countries in the warmer climes. Competent baseball coaches in Canada were seldom found and Canadian kids blossomed a couple of years later if at all compared to those in other countries. The warmer regions of Canada are in British Columbia and southern Ontario and even those seasons are relatively short.
For a kid coming out of Melville, Saskatchewan, the odds must have seemed greater than impossible. At the risk of generalizing, the prairies of Saskatchewan are cold and the winters are long. Ideal for hockey, not so good for baseball. How could a kid from this place even dream about being a professional baseball player?
After signing with the Astros in 1973, Puhl came up to stay in July 1977. He immediately became the Astros regular left fielder and batted .301 in 60 games. The next season he became the sole Houston representative to the All-Star game and in the 1980 championship playoffs he batted a then record .526. As of 2010, Puhl owned the ninth best lifetime fielding percentage of any major league outfielder.
He played a quiet and seemingly unassuming outfield throughout his career with a consistency matched by few other players. He was a table setter on a Houston team which featured speed and defense over power due to the dimensions of the Astrodome. But he was not a slap and run hitter, typical of Houston and much of the astro turf era. He hit doubles and triples. He was steady and consistent. He hit .372 in postseason play.
In 1994, Puhl was elected to the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of fame and in 1995 he was elected to the Canadian Baseball hall of Fame. In 2007 he was hired as the baseball coach at University of Houston-Victoria where he has compiled a record of 96-44.
His overall numbers are those of an average to good major league player. But those numbers are all the more remarkable when one considers the era he came from the place he came from and his quiet, it’s all about the team demeanor. He would probably not appreciate this mention. He probably just loves the game we all love.
But as a fellow Canadian who tried his best but was never good enough or really had the chance in those olden days, I always did and still admire his style of play and his accomplishments. What I found even more remarkable is that he made it at all.