Jigger Statz sits at his dining room table, reading the morning paper, checking the baseball results.
Jigger will be 88 next month. He is in frail health. He has good days and bad days, and the bad ones are gaining on the good ones. But he usually manages to read the sports page.
Jigger reads about Pete Rose, who is hustling to a lot of records, and he smiles. Jigger reads about Gary Pettis, who is making impossible catches, and he smiles.
Once upon a time, Jigger Statz was breaking the records, making the impossible catches. Jigger Statz was the star of the sports page.
He is the answer to such not-so-trivial questions as:
--Who holds the professional baseball records for most games played, 3,473; runs scored, 2,372; at-bats, 13,242, and putouts, 8,625?
--What 5-7, 150-pounder, who played most of his career in the minors, was considered by many the best center fielder ever, at any level?
--With all due respect to Sandy Koufax and Steve Garvey, who was the greatest baseball hero, the most popular player, in Los Angeles history?
Jigger Statz? The one and only.
Jigger broke into baseball with John McGraw’s New York Giants in 1919. He played some major league ball, enough to attain legendary status with his glove, but Statz is best remembered for his 18-year career with the old Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.
“Everybody loved that man, in every city in the league,” said Jimmie Reese, Statz’s Angel teammate for four seasons and now a coach for the California Angels. “You talk about fan appeal.”
Why did they love Jigger?
For starters, he was the original Gary Pettis, a sprinter and a daring acrobat in center field. Jigger’s fly-snagging secret was that he cut the entire palm out of his fielder’s glove. And gloves had no webbing then, so you had to catch the ball smack in the middle of the pocket. Or, in Jigger’s case, smack in the palm of his hand.
So Statz caught all those 8,625 fly balls barehanded.
“You could feel the ball better,” Jigger explains.
Didn’t it hurt your hand?
“You get used to it.”
Jigger could hit, too. He even hit .319 for the Chicago Cubs one season, although inconsistency at bat cut short his major league career. With the Angels, however, he hit .315 for those 18 seasons. He had seasons of .347, .354 and .360.
And Jigger played with flair. He was an exciting leadoff hitter, a base-stealing terror, and had a penchant for the dramatic. L.A.'s Wrigley Field was built in 1925, and on opening day, Statz not only christened the new field with its first home run, he also hit for the cycle.
He hit five homers in 1930, but two of them were in the first inning of the same game, and the second was a grand slam.
Oh, yeah. He was a heck of a nice guy. Still is.
“He’s one of the nicest men I’ve ever met,” Jimmy Reese said.
Arnold Statz was born in Wisconsin, but his family moved to Alabama, a state that has little insects called chiggers. Then they moved to Massachusetts, where the other kids thought Arnold was saying jigger when he said chigger. To this day, nobody calls Arnold Arnold.
He graduated from Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and jumped right onto McGraw’s Giants. He also played big league ball for Boston, Brooklyn and the Cubs. Jigger’s .285 major league average, and shortage of power, didn’t quite cut it back then. But he killed ‘em with his glove.
Some excerpts from Jigger’s scrapbook:
--"Jigger Gyps Jumbo Jim of Embryo 3-Bagger”
--"Statz is (National) League’s Outfielding Star”
--"Little Jigger Statz’s daily thriller was a one-hand catch . . . (Brooklyn Manager) Robbie said it was the greatest running catch he ever saw.”
--"Statz, endowed to the last degree with the roving spirit of fly chasing, goes to all directions equally well. His greatest stunt is an apparently hopeless sprint far to his left or right, front or rear, after line drives marked ‘extra-base hit,’ and pulling them down with a final stab of his gloved hand.”
In Los Angeles, they wrote: “Statz came back (from the major leagues) and played a brand of baseball such as this league had never seen before . . . (He is) beyond a doubt the most valuable and popular player in the loop.”
I think this was tongue in cheek, but one sportswriter wrote: “Some rival club owners wanted Statz handicapped with 15 pounds extra weight to cut down his speed.”
Said Jigger: “I could run. I had a good pair of legs.”
Good? At the age of 38, he led the PCL in stolen bases with 43. In one game he stole six bases. At 45, he was still breaking opposing batters’ hearts in the outfield.
Does Jigger think he was the greatest center fielder ever?
“Duke Snider thinks so,” Jigger said, proudly.
According to Richard E. Beverage, who wrote a history of the old Angels, scores of former major and minor leaguers he interviewed all rated Statz the best center fielder. Ever. Period.
Statz didn’t make big money. His top salary with the Angels was about $6,000, “practically the top salary in the minor leagues,” he says.
When the Cubs sold him to the Angels in 1925, Jigger became a holdout.
Said one clipping: “Statz informed Angel officials that he is thinking of going into the insurance business. As Statz was always a hard player to do business with, (the Angel GM) is not alarmed at his attitude. He believes the flashy fielder will agree to report later in the week.”
Jigger did, postponing that retirement for 17 years, until 1942. He had been playing manager of the Angels since ’40, but in ’42 the team blew a big lead in the last week of the season, and Jigger was fired.
He stayed on the West Coast, did some scouting for the Cubs, went to work for a company, did OK on some investments, and retired.
He also played a lot of golf. Statz was a fine amateur golfer, once holding the course record of 36-30--66 at San Gabriel Country Club.
He doesn’t play golf anymore, doesn’t even go bowling, and he hasn’t been out to an Angel or Dodger game in years. The man who once played ball with Joe DiMaggio and Grover Cleveland Alexander and Babe Ruth, who played golf with Howard Hughes, now rarely leaves his house.
His legs, once the stuff of legend, now barely support his still-lean frame.
Jigger lives in a nice place not far from the ocean in Corona del Mar. His wife of 63 years, Grace, died about a year ago, and, as mentioned, he has not been in good health.
Some days, though, he feels pretty good. And every morning he is able, Jigger Statz picks up the sports page, a page he once owned, and checks to see how the Dodgers and Angels are doing.