Evansville’s Starting Nine

Considering its size, Evansville has a remarkable record of producing Major League Baseball (MLB) talent. Roughly 50 big leaguers were either born, raised, or chose to reside in the River City. Several became American League (AL) or National League (NL) All-Stars. In addition, Evansville has produced a handful of World Series champions, an MVP, and, quite possibly, two future Baseball Hall of Famers. Few cities of Evansville’s size can make such a boast. I’ve selected an all-time “Evansville Starting Nine,” which I would put up against any other such municipal dream team in the country.

Drew Butera – Minnesota Twins (2010-2013), Los Angeles Dodgers (2013-2014), Anaheim Angels (2015), Kansas City Royals (2015-2018), Colorado Rockies (2018-2020)

In 2015, Butera became the latest Evansville native to earn a World Series ring. “The Don,” as the Italian-American catcher who was born in the River City is playfully known, spent the first five years of his MLB career platooning behind the plate for several big league teams before being traded to the Kansas City Royals. The veteran Butera flourished as a reserve catcher for the Royals, spelling perennial All-Star catcher Salvador Perez down the stretch.

Always a fine defensive catcher, Butera contributed in each of the Royals’ 2015 postseason series en route to the franchise’s first world championship since 1985. “The Don” spent the next four seasons as the Royals’ reserve catcher before being traded to the Rockies in 2018. Butera, who remains one of baseball’s best signal callers, represented his ancestral homeland in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, playing on the Italian National Team.

Don Mattingly – New York Yankees (1982-1995)

“Donnie Baseball” may be Evansville’s most famous export. Mattingly starred at Reitz Memorial High School, earning All-State honors in baseball twice (1978, 1979) and All-Conference honors in basketball (1978). Mattingly turned down a scholarship offer from Indiana State and signed with the Yankees. Three years later, he debuted for the Bronx Bombers late in the 1982 season. Within a year of his debut, Mattingly was New York’s everyday first baseman and wowing onlookers with both his bat and glove.

He was undoubtedly the best defensive first baseman of his generation, winning nine consecutive Gold Gloves. While some scouts questioned the slightly built Hoosier’s power, Mattingly proved to be one of the game’s most dangerous hitters for power and average. In 1984, Mattingly won the AL batting title, beating out teammate Dave Winfield on the last day of the season. He combined his .307 career batting average with significant power early in his career, belting 30 or more homeruns for three consecutive seasons (1985-1987). “The Hit Man’s” simultaneously elegant and explosive left-handed swing is one of the true things of beauty to emerge from the game of baseball. In 1987, Mattingly homered in a record-tying eight-consecutive games and broke an MLB record by hitting six grand slams in one season.

Alas, a series of back injuries cut Mattingly’s prime short, limiting his power and ability to stay on the field. His tenure with the Yankees also corresponded with the team’s longest drought from World Series play since the arrival of Babe Ruth. The lack of World Series rings, somewhat-abbreviated career, and, thus, somewhat-abbreviated career statistics of “Donnie Baseball” have kept him out of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sportswriters who have made a ball-and-chain out of benchmark statistics are the only reason he has yet to make a summer trip to upstate New York.

Mattingly won the AL MVP in 1985 and earned six straight bids to the All-Star Game. Since his retirement, he has built a tidy resume as a manager. Mattingly has spent the past decade managing the Los Angeles Dodgers (2011-2015) and Miami Marlins (2016-present). His Los Angeles clubs won three consecutive NL West division titles (2013-2015).

Jack Warner – Detroit Tigers (1925-1928), Brooklyn Dodgers (1929-1931), Philadelphia Phillies (1933)
John Ralph Warner (born in Evansville in 1903) began his big league career as the Tigers’ third baseman and finished up as second baseman for the Phillies. Warner’s defensive prowess kept him in the majors for eight seasons. He enjoyed his best offensive season in 1927 with Detroit, batting .267 and swatting 22 doubles. Following his retirement, Warner worked as a scout and minor league manager in the Chicago Cubs system for decades.

Scott Rolen – Philadelphia Phillies (1996-2002), St. Louis Cardinals (2002-2007), Toronto Blue Jays (2008-2009), Cincinnati Reds (2009-2012)

Born in Evansville and raised in Jasper, Indiana, Scott Rolen dominated Indiana high school athletics like few others. A mountain of a man, Rolen was named Indiana’s Mr. Baseball, earned All-State honors in basketball, and was a strong enough tennis player to earn full scholarship offers from many Division I college programs. Rolen signed with the Phillies, who picked him in the second round of the 1993 MLB draft.

He earned a spot on Philadelphia’s 1997 Opening Day roster and became the Phillies’ long-awaited replacement at the hot corner for Mike Schmidt. He won the NL’s Rookie of the Year Award, posting a .283 batting average with 21 home runs and 92 RBIs. Defensively, Rolen tamed his notoriously tough position, knocking down virtually everything that came his way and displaying a laser arm across the diamond. He won the first of his eight Gold Gloves in just his second season. Only two other third basemen (Brooks Robinson and the aforementioned Mike Schmidt) have won more.

Year-in and year-out, Rolen put up some of the best offensive numbers at his position, hitting 20 or more homeruns on 10 occasions and driving in at least 100 runs five times. In 2005, Rolen earned a World Series ring as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. Never one for the limelight, Rolen played 17 excellent seasons of big league baseball before retiring just as quietly as he played in 2012. A strong case can be made that Rolen merits induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame and voters seem to be coming around to this view. Rolen’s vote count on Hall of Fame ballots has increased in each of the three years he has been eligible.

Jamey Carroll – Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals (2002-2005), Colorado Rockies (2006-2007), Cleveland Indians (2008-2009), Los Angeles Dodgers (2010-2011), Minnesota Twins (2012-2013), Kansas City Royals (2013)

Born in Evansville and raised in Newburgh, Indiana, Carroll starred as an infielder at Castle High School and, later, the University of Evansville before being drafted by the Montreal Expos. A slick fielder and a steady hitter, Carroll became the Expos’ shortstop in 2003.
Though never an All-Star, Carroll put together a .272 career batting average over 12 seasons and served as the starting shortstop, second baseman, or third baseman for six different clubs. In 2007, Carroll made his only postseason appearance as a member of the NL champion Colorado Rockies.

Pete Fox – Detroit Tigers (1933-1940), Boston Red Sox (1941-1945)

Nineteen-year-old Ervin Fox gave up his job at an Evansville furniture factory when he signed on in 1930 with the Evansville Hubs, a local minor league baseball team. Two years later, he got the nickname “Peter Rabbit” from fans in the Texas League for his speed on the basepaths. “Peter Rabbit” evolved into “Pete” and the kid from Vanderburgh County found his way onto the Detroit Tigers, playing alongside future Hall of Famers Hank Greenburg, Charlie Gehringer, and Mickey Cochrane.

It didn’t take “Pete” long to fit in — Fox tore the cover off the ball throughout the 1930s, never hitting less than .285 during his eight seasons in Detroit. Fox turned many-a-singles into doubles and frequently was among the AL’s leaders in two baggers. On seven occasions, he finished in the top 10 in AL stolen bases. The Tigers of Fox’s early years were among the best teams in baseball. Detroit won a pair of pennants (1934, 1935) and took home a World Series crown (1935) during Fox’s tenure with the club.

“Pete” finished his career with the Red Sox, continuing to put up strong offensive numbers until his final season. In 1944, Fox was selected to his only All-Star Game, hitting .315 with 37 doubles for the season. After his retirement, Fox served for many years as a coach and a scout in the Tigers and Chicago White Sox minor league system.

Charlie Dexter – Louisville Colonels (1896-1899), Chicago Cubs (1900-1901), Boston Braves (1902-1903)

The 5-foot, 7-inch Dexter was one of the first big leaguers with strong ties to Evansville. Born in the River City in 1876, Dexter attended the University of the South in Tennessee before making his way to the NL’s Louisville Colonels. Notably spry, Dexter was a quintessential turn-of-the-century ballplayer — tenacious, aggressive, and hard hitting. He enjoyed a career-year with Louisville in 1898, batting .314 (12th in NL) and stealing 44 bases (fourth in NL). Dexter never again matched these numbers during his eight-year MLB career. In 1903, he gained recognition as one of the heroes of the infamous Iroquois Theatre Fire in Chicago, which killed 602 people. Dexter saved many lives that evening, pulling many of his fellow patrons out of the horrific blaze.

“Punch” knoll – Washington Senators (1905)

Charles Elmer “Punch” Knoll was a baseball lifer. Though he played just 79 games of big league baseball, Knoll spent nearly half a century in professional baseball — first as a minor league baseball player and later as a manager. In all, Knoll played in the minors for 27 years and managed for 22, accomplishing the almost unique feat of bouncing back-and-forth between playing and coaching on an annual basis until the 1930s. Following his baseball career, Knoll retired back to his hometown of Evansville and died in 1960 at the age of 79.

Andy Benes – San Diego Padres (1989-1995), Seattle Mariners (1995), St. Louis Cardinals (1996-1997, 2000-2002), Arizona Diamondbacks (1998-1999)

The pride of Central High School and the University of Evansville, Andy Benes was one of the most dominant pitchers in college baseball history, earning NCAA Player of the Year honors in 1988 for an Aces team that reached the NCAA Tournament for just the third time. The hard-throwing Benes holds just about every pitching record in Evansville history. During his senior year, Benes struck out 21 and 19 batters in separate games. Following the 1988 college season, Benes was selected to the U.S. Olympic baseball team, which won the gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. The San Diego Padres were sufficiently impressed by the college and Olympic star to make him the No. 1 overall pick in the 1988 draft.

Benes made a rapid ascension through the Padres’ system, appearing in just 21 minor league games before making his MLB debut on Aug. 11, 1989. He proved worthy of all the hype, finishing in the top 10 in strikeouts and in innings pitched on five occasions each with San Diego. Benes spent the first half of his career as the ace on some often dreadful Padres clubs, posting just one winning season in his first six despite never having an ERA that strayed above 3.80.

A trading deadline deal that sent Benes to Seattle on July 31, 1995, revitalized his career. He bolstered the Mariners’ staff down the stretch in ‘95, winning seven of his nine decisions for the eventual AL West champions (who lost to the Cleveland Indians in the AL Championship Series).
Benes signed as a free agent with St. Louis the following off-season and never again posted a losing record. By the time his career was all said and done, Benes won 155 games and ranked in the top 100 all-time in career strikeouts. Andy’s younger brother Alan also was a fine big league pitcher, spending a total of nine seasons with the Cardinals, Cubs, and Rangers.

­— Clayton Trutor holds a doctorate in U.S. History from Boston College and teaches at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. He is the author of “Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta and Atlanta Remade Professional Sports” (University of Nebraska Press, 2021). He’d love to hear from you on Twitter at @ClaytonTrutor.

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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