Kal Segrist, a former infielder with the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s, and the longtime head baseball coach at Texas Tech, passed away in Lubbock, Texas this weekend. He was 84.
Segrist was signed by the Yankees in 1951 after helping to lead Bibb Falk’s Texas Longhorns to back-to-back national championships in 1949 and 1950, with the latter being the first played in Omaha. After earning All-Conference honors as a second baseman in 1949, he volunteered to play first base in 1950 when he saw there was unsteadiness at the position.
“We had six different guys that tried at first base,” Segrist recalled during a 2008 phone interview from his home in Lubbock. “I went to Bibb [Falk] and I said, ‘Coach, I can play first.’ He looked at me in his office and reached in his locker and pulled out this old first base mitt that Abe Lincoln probably played with, threw it up to me, and said, ‘Well, we’ll try.’ We made that move and everything started gelling.”
After his success at the collegiate level, interest quickly grew from professional teams. After he was made an offer by the St. Louis Cardinals at a semi-pro tournament, his father sent notice to all of the major league clubs. Quickly the offers came rolling in. Right away, the Yankees wanted to do business.
“I ended up getting a call from the Yankees,” he said. “I [went] down to Beaumont and they were managed by Rogers Hornsby. That was the Yankee farm team. They were in San Antonio for a playoff. They had me go there and work out. … They made me an offer and I was one of their first bonus ballplayers.” (Segrist was given a $40,000 bonus.)
The only thing in the way of finalizing Segrist’s deal with the Yankees was a physical exam on his knee. As a kid, he has Osgood-Schlatter disease, and as a result of it, one of his legs was bowed. This condition didn’t affect his play, but the Yankees were about to make a substantial investment in the Texan and they couldn’t take any chances.
“With the knee factor, they wanted me to go to Baltimore to see this outstanding doctor and have my knee checked,” he said. “So dad and I flew to Baltimore, and he checked the knee and we got on the train and went on to New York.”
Most players who signed for such substantial bonuses in the 1950s had to be placed immediately on a major league roster, but the bonus rule was rescinded during the time that Segrist signed his contract. This meant the Yankees could send him to the vast depths of their farm system, but with a few strokes of luck, he wound up only one step away from the big show with their Triple-A team in Kansas City for spring training.
“I was probably the youngest guy there,” he recalled. “The only shortstop we had was Roy Nicely and he had stomach ulcers. We had [a few] second baseman and when we scrimmaged, after about five innings they would take him out and move me to short and someone else would play second. They did that through the entire spring. I basically, never actually spent any time playing there.
“It was a rather unusual spring. When we left, we went north. Just out of Florida, they had a place where there were several different teams. After that, we got back on the bus and they cut several people; they just left people there. We had people standing in the bus. So, again, I didn’t know the general manager had scheduled two series with two bases, one an Army base and one a Marine base. … I think Nicely and a guy named Hank Workman both jumped the club either at the Army or the Marine base. We opened the season at Louisville, guess who played short? I played my first 60 games at short in pro ball. That’s basically how I ended up at Kansas City.”
About halfway through Segrist’s first professional season, he was joined by a rookie outfielder from the big league club, Mickey Mantle. Casey Stengel felt that Mantle needed more seasoning and sent him down to Kansas City rather quickly to fine tune his skills.
“About the time the season started, they sent Mick to Kansas City,” he said. “One of the things he was supposed to learn was to drag bunt. He was to drag bunt once a game. The first three weeks he hit about .200, and the last three weeks he hit the ball like he could hit it and he was up to stay.”
Soon Segrist would have the opportunity to join Mantle on the Yankees the next season. With two of their top infielders, Bobby Brown and Jerry Coleman departing for military service midway through the season, a spot opened up for Segrist. He could have been there even earlier if he kept his mouth shut with the press.
“My second year, I came back and I was in spring training with New York until we broke camp,” he recalled. “This fella who was a nice guy … he wrote an article on me and was asking me questions. One of the things was about playing in Kansas City or New York. My reaction was, ‘I’d rather be in Kansas City playing, than on the bench in New York.’ Casey heard that and he accommodated me. One thing I learned, it was hard to play in New York if you are in Kansas City! If you are sitting on the bench in New York, you have a chance to make a play or make a move.
“I got back sent back to Kansas City and by July 4th, I hit over 20 homers and was hitting well over .300. I got the word from the manager that I was being called up.”
In his first major league game on July 16, 1952, Segrist singled in the 10th inning against the Cleveland Indians, and scored the winning run on a single by Hank Bauer. He stayed with the Yankees for just over two weeks, and in 27 plate appearances, it was his only hit. He found that balls that were dropping in the minor leagues ended up deep in the mitts of speedy outfielders.
“We played Cleveland and I hit two balls that would have been out anywhere else,” he said, “one to right center, and one to left center. They had a center fielder [Larry Doby] that could fly and run. I came back and said, ‘What do you have to do to get a hit in this league?’ We were on the road and had a tough road trip. We were in Detroit and if I would have hit them three feet further, they would have been out of the park, but they were fly outs.”
After a down year in 1953, Segrist picked it up with an All-Star performance with Kansas City, slugging 15 home runs while manning third base duties for the entire season. Just as things were looking up for the Texan, the Yankees shipped him off to the Baltimore Orioles as part of a 17-player trade that brought Don Larsen and Bob Turley to the Yankees. Moving to one of the lower-tier clubs should have provided more of an opportunity for Segrist to play, but the same bonus rule that saved him from a major league roster when he was signed, was now holding him up from occupying one.
“It was disappointing,” he lamented. “Baltimore signed several players and the rule at that time, if you signed someone for so much money, they had to stay on the big league roster and you couldn’t send them down. I got caught in a trap.”
Segrist, ever the consummate team player, accepted a demotion at manager Paul Richards’ behest to Double-A San Antonio so that he could be on 24-hour recall. They paid him an additional $2,000 to accept the offer. He hit 25 home runs and in September 1955, he got to experience another taste of major league life. This time around he fared better, batting .333 in nine at-bats; however, he was hobbled by a leg injury he suffered earlier in the season.
By the time Segrist fully recovered from his injury, the Orioles had another third base prospect emerge, and that was future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. With their attention focus on Robinson, Segrist languished in the minor leagues until 1961, when he finished up with Mobile Bears of the Southern Association. In 11 minor league seasons, he hit a respectable .280 with 156 home runs.
Segrist returned to school and earned his physical education teaching degree. After teaching junior high for two years, he went to Texas Tech at the urging of his cousin Herman Segrist, who chaired the physical education program. Serving as a teaching assistant and assistant baseball coach, Segrist integrated himself into the Texas Tech baseball program. By 1968, he earned the head coaching position, a far less glamorous title than today’s Division 1 standards.
“I took over totally and was there from ’68-83,” he said. “The thing about Tech, baseball wasn’t their most important sport. We didn’t even have a facility. We had trees in the outfield. I was not only the coach, I was the only groundskeeper. It’s a different deal now. Back then, I never had an assistant coach. … The guy that is there now has about six guys. The only thing I needed was a paid pitching coach, everything else I could handle. It was a challenge.
“I had to learn how to lay out a field, put down the grass, lay down home plate, the pitching rubber, first base, etc. I had to learn these things at Tech. When I got done in 1983, our ballpark that we have now, I got a new park built. We had $100,000. Most of the parks in Texas are in the millions; I designed with that $100,000. I got us a basic class ballpark built. Since then, they added to it, upgraded, and done a good job. It’s unbelievable what they got now than what I had to deal with.”