When I look back on the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers there’s one thing that was missing in that magical season: The man with the funny name and the even funnier batting stance, John Wockenfuss, should have been there to get a ring.
But his contribution to that team will never be more than to be one of the players who were sent to the Philadelphia Phillies to get Willie Hernandez. Hernandez went on to lock down nearly every save opportunity he had in ’84, earning not only the Cy Young Award, but the Most Valuable Player trophy as well. For that, Willie will always be revered by Tiger fans. Wockenfuss unfortunately, is overlooked.
It took Johnny Bilton Wockenfuss nearly eight years in the minors before he earned a chance in the big leagues in 1974. Once he got there he did anything asked of him to stay. He played the position he was converted to in the minors (catcher), played his original position (outfield), he learned to play first base, filled in at DH, and he even played some emergency games at the hot corner. Wockenfuss’s versatility and amiable demeanor endeared him to Detroit fans. Soon, “Johnny B” or “Fuss”, as Tiger faithful came to know him, was a favorite.
If you ask Tiger fans of the 1970s about Wockenfuss, they’ll first mention his bizarre batting stance. Wockenfuss corkscrewed himself into the far back corner of the right-handed batters’ box, his #14 pointing at the enemy pitcher. He held his bat above his head, as if he were a lumberjack attacking an unfortunate piece of wood. To top it off, he wiggled the fingers of both hands on the handle of the bat, butterfly-like. It looked simultaneously silly and psychotic. But it worked for “Fuss”.
Never a superstar, Wockenfuss was a super-sub. Through three managers during his decade with the Tigers, “Johnny B” was relied upon to step in when needed, be it wearing the mask behind the plate or as a late-inning pinch-hitter. He was a walking Swiss Army Knife.
His best season was in 1980, when Sparky Anderson used the West Virginian native at five positions. Wockenfuss responded with career highs in nearly every offensive category, including 16 homers, 65 RBI, and 68 walks in 126 games. Wockenfuss was legendary for terrorizing the Toronto Blue Jays. In 85 at-bats against the division foe, Wockenfuss hit a blistering .376 with a .600 SLG, the highest marks for any player against the Jays in history. At the dish, Wockenfuss had platoon skills, hitting .273 with 75 homers against LHP in his career, as opposed to .244 and 11 vs. RHP.
That versatility and success against southpaws was part of the reason he was tossed in the deal with the Phillies along with young outfielder Glenn Wilson at the end of spring training in 1984. The Tigers not only received Hernandez, they also got Dave Bergman, a top-notch defensive first baseman and professional pinch-hitter who would wear a Detroit uniform for nine seasons. It was one of the best deals in franchise history. But it meant that fan favorite “Johnny B” was in the National League while the Tigers were roaring to their title in ’84. Wockenfuss performed well for the Phils in ’84, but it was the end of the line for the 36-year old the next season and he was released.
For 10 seasons, most of them losing years and a building era in Detroit, John Wockenfuss was a likable, professional, versatile performer for the Tigers. He deserves to be remembered as more than just a throw-in in the franchise’s best trade ever.